JK making strong case to start for Warriors with Wiggins out

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The longer Andrew Wiggins remains away from the Warriors, the more Jonathan Kuminga strengthens his case for replacing the All-Star forward in the starting lineup.

Temporarily, of course.

Even with good vibes emanating from back-to-back road wins it’s becoming more difficult for coach Steve Kerr and his staff to justify pushing 6-foot-4 guard Donte DiVincenzo out there to defend three positions when 6-foot-7 Kuminga can defend four – as Wiggins does.

After the win over the Mavericks on Wednesday, Kerr jokingly described the Warriors as “hot.” Kuminga is hotter.

“Probably the best five-game stretch of his career,” Kerr told reporters in Dallas, “because the game is looking like it’s becoming simpler for him. And easier somehow. He’s more at ease with himself on the floor at both ends, so it’s fun to watch.”

The case against giving Kuminga minutes at small forward always has been that his weak 3-point shooting is detrimental to the spacing required to exploit a system designed around Stephen Curry. Kuminga is waging war on that argument.

Opponents that continue to play JK as a poor shooter are ignoring recent metrics – or frightened at the thought of him flashing past them for a roaring dunk.

Kuminga is shooting 59.6 percent from the field in March, including 50 percent beyond the arc. Such lofty numbers are not sustainable, but a larger sample reveals improved shooting from distance.

He’s at 42.9 percent from deep since the All-Star break, at 45.6 percent since the calendar flipped to 2023 – all with improved screening and diving – and still playing quality defense.

“He’s been playing great,” Draymond Green said. “He’s been playing great for a while, a couple months. He’s turned a corner. Just for him to continue to build the confidence, like he’s been doing, is great. He’s defending, using his God-given abilities, and taking on that role.”

That Kuminga is now up to 36.2 percent from deep this season illustrates the stark contrast with his early-season inefficiency. To be fair, some of his 25.8 percent shooting from deep before New Year’s Day can be attributed to inconsistent minutes and even a few DNP-CDs.

Kuminga is 20 years old, with a total of 129 games in the NBA. As he gets more consistent playing time, he continues to show the kind of progress the Warriors hoped for after drafting him seventh overall 20 months ago.

“It’s hard for young guys to come into this league and pick up everything that’s being thrown at them, but he’s done that,” Kerr said. “And here we are, near the end of his second year, and he’s just dramatically better than he was when he first arrived.”

Kuminga was tremendous defensively against the Mavericks, being largely responsible for harassing Dallas star Luka Dončić into 11-of-27 shooting and not allowing him to control the game. But JK also led Golden State in scoring, with 22 points, on 9-of-11 shooting, including 2-of-3 from deep.

Under the circumstances – two teams locked in a late-season race to the playoffs – this was perhaps Kuminga’s best overall NBA game and surely his most significant.

“He’s showing his ability as a two-way guy,” Curry said. “Being comfortable out there in taking on the challenge defensively and also finding his spots offensively, cutting and using his athleticism. He knocked down two 3s in the first half.

“Just know he’s getting more comfortable as time goes on with what we’re asking him to do defensively and finding his sweet spots in our system.”

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Kuminga has made only 13 starts this season, with mixed results. His last four starts, however, ended with him posting positive plus/minus numbers.

Among the reasons DiVincenzo moved into the starting lineup were his hustle, his combo guard skills and his ability to read the game, the latter of which is crucial in maximizing Curry’s impact. But DiVincenzo’s 3-ball, after a fantastic stretch, has fallen off. In 12 games since a 5-of-7 performance in a win over the Trail Blazers last month, he’s shooting 31.6 percent.

With Wiggins out indefinitely, eight games remaining in the regular season and all of them likely consequential, it would seem to behoove Kerr and his staff to give Kuminga an opportunity in the starting lineup.

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