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How Jonathan Kuminga made the most of a golden opportunity

If their flirtation with landing LeBron James wasn't enough of an indication, the Warriors indeed are examining the NBA's upper echelon for a top-tier running mate alongside Stephen Curry. They explored scenarios that would have brought Pascal Siakam to Golden State, league sources told Yahoo Sports, and considered making a run at Dejounte Murray. If an All-Star becomes available this summer, if James does look elsewhere, if Paul George doesn't re-sign with the Clippers — if, if, if — then expect Golden State to weigh the cost and upside of slotting said talent next to the game's greatest shooter.

So long as Curry keeps sniping at his historic clip — even at 35, he recently became the first NBA player to drain seven 3-pointers in four consecutive games — the Warriors have shown they’ll operate to pursue another banner. And so it’s been on this season’s darkest of nights, such as Jan. 4, when Golden State wilted against Denver, that Curry’s singular shooting has stood underneath its sharpest of lights. There had been no sidekick, no one qualified to help frontline what remains one of the league’s most thrilling shows. Until Golden State’s 21-year-old lottery pick stepped forward, just before it could have become too late.

You see, Jonathan Kuminga watched the Warriors fumble that 18-point advantage to the Nuggets over the game's final 18 minutes — all from his familiar seat on Steve Kerr's bench. Come morning, The Athletic reported Kuminga had "lost faith" the Warriors' storied coach would give the No. 7 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft a chance to maximize his potential, harnessed so clearly within his powerful legs.

Semantics such as those swing like a sword so close to the NBA’s trade deadline, when a single phone call between two executives can change the course of individual careers and entire franchises. Kuminga’s name had been dangled in trade talks since last summer, with noted interest from the Pacers, league sources told Yahoo Sports, while Indiana was exploring its options with the same No. 7 draft position that once brought Kuminga to the Bay. By January, there were fewer options for Golden State to even consider on the trade market with only a handful of Warriors players of whom rival teams actually held interest and who could have possibly returned meaningful pieces behind Curry.

So Kerr welcomed Kuminga into his office after reminding his full roster the coach’s door remains open for each player with that golden bridge on his chest. Kerr’s true majesty helming four title teams has always been whispering the right words into a struggling shooter’s ear, offering necessary perspective that grows displaced through losing streaks and dragging road trips. And so he and Kuminga sat, and they talked. It’s funny how turbulence amid an NBA season can settle just as quickly after everything suddenly feels doomed.

“I just told him how I feel, he told me how he feels. Things he wanted me to do more to get more playing time. After that, just going out there and just enjoying it, enjoying playing for him,” Kuminga told Yahoo Sports. “He’s coaching me harder. Sometimes you don’t understand things until it comes to your eyes. Somebody wants great things for you, that’s why they coach you harder. I think that’s what it was, just him coaching me harder every time because he wants great things from me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be on this court. I wouldn’t have this type of spirit to go out there and play.”

The Warriors were 16-18 then, stumbling to 20th in defensive rating with glaring gaps on the perimeter Klay Thompson used to mask before injury after injury derailed his prime. Kuminga and Andrew Wiggins represented Golden State’s best chances at solidifying that spotty front, and yet Kerr had said publicly he felt the lanky forwards — each standing roughly 6-foot-8 with 7-foot wingspans — seemed redundant during early stretches sharing the floor, as the Warriors finished minus-66 in that pairing’s first 131 minutes together this season. That all led Kerr, staring at Kuminga from across his desk, to reemphasize his third-year forward needed to value every sequence, every dribble, for this team to stand a fighting chance.

“He felt like I wasn’t locked in. Basketball, every possession matters, so I just wasn’t locked in on certain possessions,” Kuminga said. “He told me, ‘I need you to do the small things that will help our team.’ He keeps repeating that to me every single time we talk.”

That evening, Kuminga pulled down the gray hood of his warmups and revealed a fresh buzz, his braids slashed and left behind with his regular barber. He logged 35 minutes in the Warriors' second game of a back-to-back against the lowly Pistons, but it wasn't until three games later, the start of a three-game road trip in Chicago, when Kuminga would truly begin rounding into the second banana this version of Golden State has so desperately lacked. Kuminga hung 24 points on the Bulls and rattled off eight straight contests with 20-plus, prompting the game broadcast on Feb. 2 to post a graphic showing Kuminga's metamorphosis — 21.2 points per game on 44% shooting from distance — following his new look.

“People think it was me switching gears. It’s not, nah. I had to just keep going, keep growing every day. Locking in even more,” Kuminga said. “It’s not the haircut. I had a mindset that was already set.”

The Warriors took seven of 10 games before the All-Star break, stringing together five straight wins to surge back into the thick of the Western Conference playoff race. While Golden State also held serious talks with Utah about acquiring veteran center Kelly Olynyk, sources said, and engaged Chicago about landing versatile defender Alex Caruso, Kuminga and Wiggins have thrived, side by side, in the Warriors' revamped lineup — especially now that Draymond Green has returned from a month's long suspension.

After riding the same unit, with Kevon Looney at center, that took the Warriors to the 2022 title, Kerr's staff has revitalized the smaller combinations that first unlocked Curry and Co. "We've shifted lineups," Kerr said, "and we're shifting our style." In 249 minutes, the three-man group of Green, Wiggins and Kuminga suddenly boasts a 15.5 net rating, per NBA.com, most notably sporting a 102.9 defensive mark that would rank six points per 100 possessions better than the league-leading Timberwolves.

Out of post touches typically designed for the Warriors’ patented split actions, encouraging passes back out to the perimeter, Kuminga unloads forceful drives to the rim when he gathers on the block and the elbows. He spins around either shoulder, with a patience as impressive as his punch. His head fakes can help brutalize his way toward forceful dunks or fade into soft, leaning jumpers. He can launch and twist his body around oncoming defenders and finish with either hand, usually thundering jams with both palms kissing iron.

It seems no coincidence that Kuminga’s evolution has followed the same footsteps of Green’s own breakout a decade before him, when a hamstring injury to David Lee prompted Kerr to insert the undersized Michigan State product in his stead. Kerr plugged Kuminga into Green’s exact place, the very first game the league disqualified the veteran indefinitely this past December.

"Since I got suspended, JK has taken off," Green told reporters last week. "And that has kinda set the stage for this team. Bona fide No. 2 option on our team. And so now, you got different things, you're able to figure out different things that we can go to. Our offense don't look the exact same like it used to look. We got different things that we're going to. We're able to find different combinations that work."

The Warriors have entrusted Kuminga with the rock, and not just in transition. He’s being used more and more as a ball-handler in the half court, navigating screens, spraying passes, probing opponents. He rarely seems rushed, whether he’s charging into the paint or orchestrating on the perimeter.

“It’s a trust that I can’t lose, so I gotta keep working on those things and seeing the floor better,” Kuminga said. “I had to learn how to survey the floor, so any time they do try to help or something like that, there’s gonna be somebody open.”

His reads have been aided by his own improvement as a cutter. His threat from 3 was never something Andrew Bogut or JaVale McGee posed against foes, allowing Kuminga an even longer runway to sneak along baselines and rise to hammer home lobs from Green’s crafty playmaking.

“We’ve been trying, really for a long time, to get him to attack and take up space,” Kerr said. “If he’s on the perimeter and there’s a lane to the rim, without the ball, go to the rim. Catch the ball in the paint and dunk it. Because he’s unstoppable there. It just took him some time to see those patterns and to really feel them. And I think there’s no question the additional playing time has given him more confidence.”

Kuminga now turns corners with fire in his eyes, like there’s something decadent at the cup, and it’s first come, first serve.

“What we’re seeing in terms of him attacking the rim, going to the free-throw line, and really making an impact, it’s beautiful to see,” Kerr said. “But it’s a reminder, again, you just don’t know when something’s going to click, but something has clicked.”

It couldn’t have happened at a better time for the Warriors, without another path toward marked improvement that would have otherwise proven quite costly — first-round picks out the door, perhaps Wiggins as well. And for Kuminga, this third season, a fateful campaign, has blossomed just before he becomes extension-eligible this summer, when the Warriors can keep looking for options to boost Curry, plus this kid who’s always flying toward the rim.

“There was never a moment where I think that I arrived. As a person, as a human being, there’s always growth,” Kuminga said. “And I know that for sure. Even Steph always has a growth mindset. There’s always growth. And he just looks back and thinks, ‘I’m getting better.’ That’s how I love to think.”