Jonathan Kuminga is turning into a defensive force for the Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO – The Hornets completely erased an 18-point lead by the Warriors in the second half. It was tied at 101 with less than three minutes remaining. Charlotte had a ball. The ball went to PJ Washington in the corner.

Washington is a skilled big. He launches 3s and hits them at a capable clip, but the first step isn’t very explosive. He wants space and, in this case, tried to break his defender Jonathan Kuminga several times to get it.

But Kuminga did not give him room to breathe. He’s quicker laterally than Washington and increasingly aggressive, filling his role as one of the Warriors’ go-to defenders. When Washington sent those few soft moves at him, Kuminga only got closer and became more invasive. Washington dropped the ball. Kuminga ripped it off.

That steal was one of the most talked about postgame moments after the Warriors closed out a needed 110-105 victory. The quotes that emerged in defense of Kuminga from two of the loudest and most influential voices in the room raise eyebrows.

“He was like Andre Iguodala in that game,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s an Andre-type play. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andre has been guiding him all season and last year.”

“It was a will,” Draymond Green said. “It’s ‘I want the ball more than you.’ It’s “Our backs are against the wall.” We have lost the leader. Let me go and make a play myself.” So he took the ball. He goes, takes a dunk. He goes and takes the turn in traffic. He performed every game at a low level. I think it all started on that play when PJ Washington stole the ball. He’s committed to her.”

Kuminga played the entire fourth quarter. He wouldn’t have if Andrew Wiggins was available. But Wiggins’ extended absence has opened the door wider for Kuminga, and he’s taken a firmer hold on the rotation position over the last few weeks because of his defense at the point of attack.

“We went with him for his protection,” Kerr said. “He’s playing really well defensively and he was protecting Lamelo (Ball).

“At this point, the fourth quarter,” Kuminga admitted, “I usually don’t get to participate in the game.”

Kuminga found an opening for two huge slashing dunks in the closing minutes. He was 6-for-6 shooting. He also blew steam on an isolation layup against Gordon Hayward with under 90 seconds left to give the Warriors a five-point lead. You can watch offensive clips here. After the Hornets called a timeout, Green began shoving Kuminga in celebration.

But Green specifically mentioned the big rebound. The Warriors are a smaller team in dire need of an injection of controlled athleticism. Kuminga is one of the best percentiles in the NBA and is starting to make a positive impact, such as the aforementioned defensive rebound seen below where he skyrocketed over Mason Plumlee to secure the crucial possession with three minutes remaining.

7 of 25 shots went through. Six of those misses came in a dreadful fourth quarter. The last of them sealed Charlotte’s defeat. That came after Klay Thompson missed a free throw that kept the Warriors up five. Ball attempted to drive it into the frontcourt with 10 seconds left for a quick score. But he was chased all over the court by Kuminga, who spent most of the night, and this last month, chasing the bouncers.

Here is one example.

It’s a vital milestone for a Warriors team that lost one of the NBA’s best offensive points this summer. Gary Payton 2, who led the NBA in steals per 36 minutes, left a void when he left for Portland. Donte DiVincenzo and Moses Moody have their strengths, but neither can hawk like Payton.

Kuminga isn’t all that experienced, but his physical skills are off the charts and, after falling out of the rotation early in the season, seems to be settling into his bench as an avid on-ball pest.

“He’s locking in now,” Green said. “I think it’s very impressive to see. Not that you never thought he was capable, but to see the maturity and the role. Like, “Oh, that’s my role, that’s what I’m supposed to do.” I’m going to do it better than anyone else.” We’ve seen his impact over the past few weeks. He raps all the guards he climbs on. … As a competitor, you lose your spot in the rotation, what are you going to do to get it back? Some gloom. The most gloomy. Then some go and take it back. That’s what he did.”

Green’s words should not be taken lightly. When talking about the defense, he does not often make such slanders. Those were meaningful statements about the second-year wing, who he clearly believes has the potential to be an elite defender.

“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” Green said. “It’s his (improved) understanding on that side of the ball. He’s in the right place more often than not now. I think his growth in that area has been absolutely amazing. Honestly, we really needed it. Because we didn’t defend the dribble penetration well. We haven’t been really good at the point of attack all year. He changes that for us.”

Kuminga disrupts the ball and is dangerous when locked in a one-on-one assignment. But for him to really emerge and continue to close key games for the Warriors, he still needs to improve in the team’s concept, doesn’t he? Green was asked that question.

“I don’t play defense in the team concept,” Green said. “I know most people think I do, but I don’t. When you’re good enough, team ideas adapt around you. That’s what he’s starting to show. We may not want him to climb as high as he keeps climbing. But if you’re wreaking havoc and it makes us better and the opponent’s offense worse, who’s to say stop? When you’re good enough and you’re capable, the team ideas fit around you.”

It’s Green, one of the greatest quarterbacks of a generation, inserting himself into the defensive conversation about Kuminga.

“The (other) guys are learning,” Green continued. “Even now you will hear (coaches) say. “Hey, we’re doing it on screen!” Then Lu will say: “Hey, I’m not doing this to JK. He’s going to be in the ball a lot and I can’t get good red (coverage). So I’m just going to address JK (it’s different). It suits him. What he does is good enough for me to tune in as opposed to “No, JK, I really need you to get into this red.” No. He is so good that something we will adapt to. Understanding team concepts is extremely important. He’s studying. He helps. He does what needs to be done on that side. But when you show the skills he has on the other side of the ball, you’d be a fool to say, “Hey, we need you to go do this.”

This seems like a remarkable development.

(Photo by Jonathan Kuminga of the Warriors scoring against Gordon Hayward of the Hornets: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)


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