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Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga experiment as NBA playoff starter yet to pay off

Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga experiment as NBA playoff starter yet to pay off

After losing Gary Payton II in Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinals against Memphis, the Warriors were forced to alter their starting lineup. Among the options to replace GP2 were guards Jordan Poole and Damion Lee or forward Otto Porter Jr.

Coach Steve Kerr and his staff went for the fourth option: 19-year-old rookie forward Jonathan Kuminga.

They wanted to see if his athleticism, vertical spacing and energy – assets JK shares with GP2 – could offset some of what the Grizzlies have in abundance.

“We wanted to replace Gary’s athleticism around the rim,” Kerr explained after the game. “Memphis is a really athletic team, and it’s tough to finish at the rim. You saw Gary do it first game several times, and we knew JK could do the same. So just wanted him to get the first crack.”

It was, or so it seemed, an inspired experiment. Kuminga lasted seven minutes, during which he made 2-of-3 shots, grabbed one rebound and committed three turnovers in a span of roughly five minutes. He was minus-10 for his time.

JK was given a second crack in Game 4. He played the first five minutes, attempting no shots but producing one rebound, one assist and one block. Hey what minus-5.

When the Warriors went back Kuminga in Game 5 on Wednesday, he played the first five minutes, going 1-of-3 from the field – before Stephen Curry took his first shot – and recording one assist. JK what minus-7.

With Kuminga getting three consecutive starts, it was clear the experiment was over. The Warriors felt his presence was beneficial – despite the analytics.

Whether they feel Kuminga is the right choice to start Friday, when the Grizzlies come to Chase Center for Game 6, still is to be determined. But acting head coach Mike Brown on Thursday attempted to explain the rationale behind starting JK.

“He’s a vertical threat when we play pick-and-roll with Draymond rolling in the pocket,” he said. “We’ve had a couple plays where Steph’s hit Draymond (Green) in the pocket while playing pick-and-roll, and Draymond is throwing it up behind the defense, and JK went up and dunked it. With the right spacing, we can get those looks from time to time.”

Kuminga’s athleticism, in theory, is helpful against Memphis, particularly considering its two big men, ranging power forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and rugged center Steven Adams, are hyperactive on the glass. It’s a lot to ask Draymond to deal with both.

But in his three first quarters as a starter, JK has grabbed a rebound.

Frankly, JK looks overmatched at the outset of the game and fantastic in a free-for-all fourth quarter. After his inelegant start in Game 3, he came back in the fourth quarter to score 12 points on 5-of-6 shooting and grab a rebound in less than six minutes.

The Warriors owned a 23-point lead when Kuminga entered with 5:37 remaining and helped secure the dominating win.

“JK, he’s kind of learning on the fly,” Brown said. “His growth has been tremendous, especially in the short amount of time that he’s been with us and getting some minutes in the playoffs. His number could be called on at any time because of his size and length and athleticism, and then is ability to score.”

Despite his presence in the starting lineup, Kuminga’s early minutes still feel experimental, as if he’s on trial, with the warriors hoping he thrives. Problem is, he’s a cumulative minus-22 in 18 first-quarter minutes.

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The second round of the postseason is an uncomfortable time to experiment with a rookie, particularly when there are veterans available.

But with Porter listed as questionable for Game 6 with soreness in his right foot, there’s a decent chance Kuminga will again take the floor with the starters. If so, maybe this time he’ll shine.

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