clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Rookie Curve: Can the Warriors Develop and Win?

Jonathan Kuminga could be the key to Golden State’s future. But as the Warriors found out with James Wiseman, rookies and contenders don’t mix.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Paths to NBA stardom are never linear, and every rookie has a unique set of roadblocks to overcome before they can capitalize on their potential. Over the next few weeks, Jonathan Tjarks will examine some of the 2021 draft’s top talents and how their team’s situation will affect their freshman season.

Rookies don’t have it easy in Golden S​​tate. James Wiseman, last year’s no. 2 pick, could tell that to Jonathan Kuminga, this year’s no. 7 pick. Wiseman is coming off an up-and-down campaign during which he lost his starting spot and the team played much better without him. It’s unclear how the Warriors can develop him and compete in the West simultaneously. Now they may have the same problem with Kuminga.

Kuminga is as blue-chip as it gets. He was the top prospect in his high school class before skipping his senior year to play for the G League Ignite, for whom he averaged 15.8 points on 38.7 percent shooting and 7.2 rebounds per game. Wings with his size (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds), athleticism, and scoring ability are the most valuable players in the NBA.

But his time in the G League poked some holes in his résumé. Like many über-elite athletes, he relied almost entirely on his physical tools at the high school and AAU levels. There’s not a lot of sophistication and finesse in his game at this stage of his career. Kuminga wants to put his head down and bully his way through traffic every time that he touches the ball. He’s not a great shooter (24.6 percent from 3 on 5.0 attempts per game in the G League) or decision-maker (2.7 assists and 2.6 turnovers), and doesn’t contribute much when he’s not a featured part of the offense.

That’s a recipe for disaster in coach Steve Kerr’s system. Golden State plays offense like no one else in ​​the NBA:

Warriors’ One-of-a-Kind Offenses

Play Type NBA Rank % of Offense
Play Type NBA Rank % of Offense
Off-ball screen 1 8
Cuts 4 8.8
P/R ball-handler 26 14.8
P/R roll man 30 3.5

Kerr, a disciple of Phil Jackson, is one of the last holdouts against the trend of running a million pick-and-rolls through a handful of players and telling everyone else to get out of the way. He believes in keeping all five players involved in the offense by constantly moving the ball and using them as a screener, cutter, or passer. It can be a joy to watch when done correctly.

The problem with running that style of offense is it requires the supporting cast to carry a heavier load than anywhere else in the league. One of the strangest parts about the Golden State dynasty is how important players like Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and David West were despite the team also having four future Hall of Famers in their prime. Kerr’s coaching rivals would have crawled over a bed of nails to have Steph Curry and Kevin Durant, much less Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, while he created an elaborate ecosystem that required talented role players, too.

This version of the Warriors now asks raw teenagers to play like wizened 30-somethings. A lot of the excitement about Wiseman in Golden State was based on the idea that his transition to the NBA would be smoother playing with Steph and Draymond. But the opposite proved to be true: The Warriors had a net rating of plus-4.7 without Wiseman and minus-8.8 with him. The key for helping young players have success on good teams is simplifying their role so they don’t have to think too much. The Warriors asked Wiseman to think all the time. He had to play out of the high post and make precision passes all over the court rather than just rolling to the rim and catching lobs.

To be fair, Wiseman played only three games in college before an eligibility issue derailed his season, and then the pandemic both delayed the start of his NBA career and limited the amount of practice time he got as a rookie. He also underwent meniscus surgery in April that could keep him out for the start of this season.

But his absence showed just how much he was hurting Golden State: The Warriors went 14-5 in the 19 games after he went down. It goes back to how the team is put together; the Warriors have to dominate in the minutes that Curry plays and survive in the ones that he doesn’t. Wiseman was bad with Curry last season but he was even worse without him. There’s not a spot for him in the rotation unless he learns how to play within Kerr’s system.

The same thing that happened with Wiseman could happen with Kuminga. The rookie’s instincts are to attack the rim and to create his own shot even if nothing is there. It would be hard enough for him to learn how to play off other players in a limited spot-up role. The more exacting requirements for a secondary option in Golden State make him a worse fit than free-agent additions Iguodala (back again), Otto Porter Jr., and Nemanja Bjelica, and returning players like Damion Lee and Juan Toscano-Anderson. Moses Moody, the no. 14 pick, might also end up ahead of Kuminga in the rotation because he’s a better shooter.

There is a dissonance between the types of players that Golden State is drafting high in the lottery and the types of players that Kerr needs. Basketball IQ was never the selling point for Wiseman or Kuminga; both are learning the game after unusual paths to the NBA. Yet Kerr wants them to master calculus when they should still be in algebra.

Shipping Kuminga back to the G League isn’t a great option, either. He can’t learn what the Warriors need from him in a 10-to-15-minute role if he’s dominating the ball alongside a haphazard collection of players like he did last season. The good news about his time with the Ignite is that he played for Brian Shaw, another Jackson disciple who used some triangle-like principles in their offense. The bad news is playing in that kind of system is what exposed the holes in his game and hurt his draft stock in the first place. Kuminga was initially seen as a better prospect than teammate Jalen Green, who became the no. 2 pick.

It would not be the end of the world if Kuminga doesn’t have a big role as a rookie. The 19-year-old might benefit from watching from the bench and learning in practice. But Golden State does have to find him minutes in the near future, especially if it wants to trade him when a star becomes available.

Kuminga isn’t a gold bar that the Warriors can store in a vault and expect to appreciate in value. He needs a role. A good example is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who wasn’t in the running for Rookie of the Year in his lone season with the Clippers, but contributed to a playoff team and proved that he could be a centerpiece of the Paul George trade.

The irony is that both Kuminga and Wiseman would be at their best in the same role. Each would thrive as a pick-and-roll partner for Steph, taking advantage of the defensive attention he draws to get to the rim and use their athletic gifts. Kuminga is big enough to play center on a team that uses Green, Toscano-Anderson, and Kevon Looney at the position. Kerr began using Wiseman in those plays more as the season went along, but that probably won’t ever be a featured part of their offense.

It’s not just that Kerr shares the Zen Master’s near-religious belief in the importance of playing a more democratic style of basketball. Changing the offense wouldn’t make sense for their other stars besides Steph. Draymond is a playmaker who needs cutters and shooters to find. There would be nothing for him to do in an off-ball role in which he spotted up at the 3-point line. Klay is coming back from a torn Achilles, an injury suffered while rehabilitating a torn ACL. Getting back to what he was will be a huge challenge already, and would be even more difficult if he has to learn a different role that forces him to change how he plays.

The Warriors are supposed to be a team of the present and of the future all in one. It sounds great on paper, but it’s hard to pull off. The whole organization has to be pulling in the same direction to succeed. Trying to do two things at once usually means you end up doing neither well. There’s no way for Golden State to run an offense that maximizes its older stars and develops its younger players. The Warriors will have to pick one or the other.