Golden StateWarriors

Kuminga passes LeBron test, ready for Warriors' playoff run


SAN FRANCISCO -- Just 23 days after Jonathan Kuminga's first birthday, the NBA changed forever. An 18-year-old LeBron James, wearing a No. 23 jersey, made his professional debut for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers and scored 25 points in a blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings.

For Kuminga, Saturday night was another first for the Warriors rookie in Golden State's 117-115 win against the Los Angeles Lakers. This wasn't just another start for the 19-year-old. It was his first time facing the Lakers, and his first time playing -- and starting against -- James. 

"I was just excited to play against the Lakers," Kuminga said after the win. "Growing up, I used to watch them because of Kobe [Bryant]. Growing up, everyone watched LeBron growing up. Going in there and playing against him, it was super cool." 

Kuminga called his performance "OK." The stats say he was a bit better than that. 

He was a minus-3 in his 25-plus minutes, but also scored 18 points and grabbed nine rebounds -- the second-most of his career. Before running into foul trouble, Kuminga went 8-for-11 from the field and finished with a plus-27.5 net rating. 

All but one of his 11 attempts were right around the rim and he threw down three dunks, including another poster of a slam

His performance certainly wasn't lost on Lakers head coach Frank Vogel. 

"I love his talent," Vogel said of Kuminga. "I mean, he is very, very impressive. They got a good one. Like, he has really elite athleticism, you can see the skill. You know he's young and he's only going to go up. 

"I was very, very impressed with him."

On the other end, James was just shy of a triple-double with 26 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists. He also was a minus-11, missed two free throws in the final 2.3 seconds and went 2-for-15 from the field in the second half.

Kuminga now has faced a handful of stars and future Hall of Fame players. There's only one LeBron James, and you only get to go against him for the first time once. All season long, there has been a lesson to be learned for Kuminga on a nightly basis.

None bigger than guarding James. 

"I enjoy playing basketball, I love it," Kuminga said. "Playing against people like that, the day they retire ... they're not gonna be there. So, picking up the little things that he does on the floor and maybe learn from that."

The only downside to his night was the fact that Kuminga found himself in foul trouble late in the game. He committed his fifth foul with 7:43 left and Otto Porter Jr. replaced the rookie with 6:52 remaining and the Warriors down 101-98. That was the last we saw of Kuminga. 

It's not something he regrets, but Steve Kerr certainly wishes Kuminga could have been rewarded even more for his strong play through the first three-plus quarters. But with the Warriors trailing and badly needing more offense, Kerr closed with a small, offense-focused lineup. Kuminga's absence also had to do with him being the primary defender on James. Kerr didn't want Kuminga to pick his sixth and final foul before LeBron was back in, and by the time that happened, the coach was fully invested in a smaller lineup.

That doesn't take away what Kuminga did up to that point. 

"I felt bad," Kerr said. "I mean, Jonathan was our best player for the first three quarters and I really wanted to get him back in the game."

The way it's going, Kuminga will have plenty of honors and accolades to his name. But he won't have the Rising Stars Game on his résumé from his rookie year. The NBA probably wishes they could change that. 

In the four games since rosters were announced for the event on All-Star weekend, Kuminga has averaged 15.8 points and 5.0 rebounds per game. Klay Thompson still can't believe his teammate was left hanging. 

"Isn't that crazy he's not gonna be in the Rising Stars Game," Thompson said. "He just guarded LeBron James for however many minutes, gave us 18 on 11 shots -- almost a double-double. 

"How many 19-year-olds are doing that? I don't know." 

RELATED: Klay's fourth-quarter eruption sends NBA Twitter into frenzy

More importantly, how many 19-year-old go from being inactive in the season-opener to earning playoff minutes for a championship contender? That's where we're at with Kuminga. 

What has been obvious finally was said Saturday night by Kerr. Kuminga now has played six straight games with at least 22 minutes on the floor. He has gone from athletic marvel to one of the Warriors' most important players. This is a teenager on a team with Steph Curry, Draymond Green, Andrew Wiggins and Thompson, and Kuminga will be more than vital when the brightest lights come on. 

Say hello to Playoff Kuminga. 

"The plan was, let's get him experience now," Kerr said. 

Why? The playoffs, and if all goes right, the NBA Finals. 

"Let's put him on LeBron now, because he's gonna have to guard LeBron and plenty of other guys in the playoffs who are really, really tough jobs, tough covers," Kerr explained. "We're just trying to get him all the experience we can right now. He's handling it beyond anything I could have expected, even a couple weeks ago.

"His rise this last month has just been brilliant." 

James is in Year 19. Kuminga didn't turn 19 until more than two months after the Warriors took him with the No. 7 overall pick in last year's draft. Who knows how much longer LeBron's NBA career will last. And who knows how high Kuminga can keep pushing his ceiling. 

It sure is fun to imagine, and Saturday night's win was just another dream turning into a reality for the Warriors' prized rookie.

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