Jonathan Kuminga

Kerr believes JK's frustrations helped spark Warriors' turnaround

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Just one month ago, an increasingly frustrated Jonathan Kuminga reportedly "lost faith" in Steve Kerr and his role with the Warriors.

The two then talked things out in a private conversation and since then, Golden State has gone 13-8 in its last 21 games and risen from the bottom feeders of the Western Conference to an actual NBA playoff contender.

In an exclusive interview with The Athletic's Tim Kawakami, Kerr said he believes Kuminga's frustrations actually might have helped spark the team's recent turnaround after winning 10 of its last 12 contests.

“I knew he was frustrated,” Kerr told Kawakami of Kuminga. “We had a great talk the next day. He came into my office. He’s a very respectful young guy. For the first two years, our conversations were very much one-sided. I couldn’t get him to respond. So I would tell him what we needed. And he didn’t say a whole lot.

“So I think it was actually a good thing for him to kind of express his frustration because it kind of forced him to really take ownership of it, and we had a good conversation. He let me know how he’s feeling, that he was frustrated, and we went through a list of things that I felt he needed to do, and it coincided with the time that Draymond (Green) was out (suspended for 11 games and then working his way back into game shape) … so he got more minutes based on playing better but also on the opportunity that came up.

“I’m never offended by guys being frustrated with a lack of playing time, because that’s natural. He’s always been a great young guy to coach and we’ve always had a good relationship. I think it grew this year because of a little conflict, and we needed that.”

It was first reported by The Athletic's Shams Charania on Jan. 5 that Kuminga didn't believe Kerr and his then-situation with the Warriors would allow him to reach his full potential.

This came after Kerr benched the young athletic forward for the entire fourth quarter of the Warriors vs. Denver Nuggets game despite scoring an impressive 16 points in 18 minutes. Golden State wound up blowing an 18-point lead in the 130-127 loss and fell to 11th place with a 16-18 record.

Kuminga reportedly had previous concerns with his confusingly fluctuating role since being drafted by Golden State with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, but the benching against Denver "was the straw that broke the camel's back," a source told Charania.

While Kerr admitted he has made mistakes with Kuminga's minutes, he is sure that the team's surprise has coincided with the 21-year-old's consistent and impressive breakthrough.

“There were times early in the season where I didn’t bring him back in (after an early-game stint or two) and maybe I should’ve,” Kerr said. “That’s the thing with this, there’s no formula. And I for sure have made my share of mistakes with these guys and with our team. That’s part of it. This is not a science, and you’re trying to nudge these guys along.

“I think what happened with JK is he had a breakthrough the last two months and he started to do the things that we’ve really been harping on. And then that sort of fed on itself. He started to feel more confident, we started giving him more rope. I think the change in the starting lineup helped him quite a bit, with Draymond at the five, it allowed him to have more space, get to the rim more often, that sort of thing.

“And this is what people usually say in this league: It’s Year 3 when guys start to really feel it and take off. But when you draft a guy that high (at No. 7 overall in 2021), nobody wants to hear, ‘It takes three years.’ They want it to happen right away. But it just doesn’t.”

Kerr now has kept Kuminga in the main rotation, alongside Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green, Brandin Podziemski and Steph Curry.

He is averaging a career-high 25.6 minutes this season, contributing 15.2 points on 52.7-percent shooting with 4.7 rebounds and two assists.

Kerr recognized that Kuminga's frustrations didn't stem from just the Nuggets incident, he knew they were rooted further back and much deeper. Kuminga's talent was never the question to Kerr, but he wanted to see the young forward check a couple of boxes before he could fully trust him on the floor in a consistent role.

Rebounding, defense and running the floor were just a couple of those boxes to be checked. Once Kuminga did, he finally got the green light from Kerr that he had so desperately been waiting for.

“It was a tension spot from the beginning, for sure,” Kerr said. “If you think about it, the first two years of JK’s time with us, I played Juan (Toscano-Anderson) the first year, I played (Anthony) Lamb last year, and I played them simply because they were better players. Now, they weren’t more talented players, but they understood the game better, they shot the ball better, they knew how to move the ball in the half-court. They knew how to communicate defensively. All the little things that have to go into winning, they were better.

“And that’s why I played them, I know much to the anger of some of our fans and I’m sure people in our front office and ownership. I know that they weren’t thrilled. But again, this is the path we chose. Kind of swinging for the fences (in the draft). And remember when we took James and then the next year we took JK, we hadn’t played the playoffs for two years. We didn’t know if we were still a championship team.

“I was totally on board with taking guys with high ceilings. But I was the one who had to face the daily grind of helping them get to that ceiling. With a championship team in ’22, didn’t leave a whole lot of room for playing with guys who needed a ton of growth.”

Golden State's so-called "two-timeline plan" might be a thing of the past now, but there's no denying that the Warriors have a rising young group of talented players taking notes from their dynastic core.

In addition to Kuminga, Kerr is trying to help players like Podziemski, Moody, Trayce Jackson-Davis and others develop. When Chris Paul comes back from his hand injury, Kerr's seemingly never-ending rotation conundrum won't get any easier.

“It’s funny, it’s like, how do you develop young players? Well, you hold them accountable and you make sure that they’re doing all the things they need to do to win,” Kerr said. “That’s what it’s about every day. I treat them really with a ton of respect, and they deserve the respect that I give ’em, but they earn the playing time.”

“I don’t have anything against young players. I just want to play players who understand what makes winning.”

And for now, that is his -- and the team's -- only focus as they continue to climb atop the stacked, wild, wild West.

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