Two areas Kuminga must improve to fit Warriors' puzzle


SAN FRANCISCO -- The Warriors finally became a whole team this season going into the NBA playoffs with the return of Andrew Wiggins and Gary Payton II having seven games under his legs back in a Golden State jersey.

Those two rejoining the Warriors was supposed to hurt the opposition and give the defending champions a major lift. Both certainly do, and did, help the Warriors' chances. Their insertion into the rotation also meant adjustments for several Warriors, none more than Jonathan Kuminga.

"I think the biggest thing was with Wiggs and Gary in place again, it lessened the need for what JK's strength is right now, which is on-ball defense," Steve Kerr said Tuesday. "The best way for Jonathan -- and I told him this, the best way for him to get more playing time is to become a more versatile player.

"I look at every combination that we put out there as a puzzle. The puzzle has to fit. The more things you can do, the more easy it is to fit into a five-man lineup."

Much of that should be music to Kuminga's ears, and fits the same sentiments he has shared as well. The 20-year-old wants to do it all on the court and sees himself as someone who has the ability to do everything, for better or worse. One box also has to be checked at a time, as opposed to trying to check multiple at once in real time.

The first part of Kuminga's offseason to-do list going into his third season as a pro is clear to Kerr.

It's clear to Kuminga, too.

And it's a skill that should come naturally to someone who, at 6-foot-8 and 210 pounds, might not only be the best athlete on the Warriors but already one of the best in the entire NBA.

"Rebounding is a huge thing for JK," Kerr said Tuesday. "If he's going to be a great player in this league, he's got to rebound. A four-man with that kind of size and athleticism, that's the next step, and continuing to work on all the things that he's working on already, the shooting and the ball handling and the court vision, understanding what's happening on the floor.

"It's all going to get better because he's so young and because he's willing to work. You put all that together, and there's no reason why he can't come in and have a great season next year."

Three days prior when I asked Kuminga what his main priority would be over the summer, it was clear what the theme of his exit interview was. He's even using Warriors center Kevon Looney as a shining example for himself.

"Basically everything," Kuminga said Saturday. "But focusing more on rebounding. I think that's the biggest thing that I've got to go back and watch all the clips and learn how to rebound more and hopefully come back and start rebounding like Loon, hopefully, one day.

"I just feel like getting better at everything. Just being a complete player."

Kuminga as a rookie averaged 3.3 rebounds per game. This past season he improved that number by 0.1 despite averaging four more minutes per game. He had 20 regular-season games in his rookie year where he grabbed five or more rebounds.

Last season, he did so 19 times.

Kerr clearly didn't trust Kuminga to bring other skills in the playoffs, roster jam or not. Kuminga averaged just 6.1 minutes in the Warriors' 13 playoff games, after playing 8.6 minutes per night in the postseason last year as a 19-year-old rookie.

Rebounding improvements can be the catalyst for an ultra-athletic player such as Kuminga. Wiggins fully convinced people he's a winning player who ultimately took a team-friendly deal last year after pulling down 7.5 rebounds per game in the playoffs. He was at his best in the NBA Finals, snatching 8.8 rebounds, including 16 in Game 4 when the Warriors trailed the Boston Celtics two games to one.

In three of the 10 playoff games Kuminga played this year, he failed to haul in a single rebound. His high was two rebounds, which he did twice. Kuminga not having a few more chances against the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference semifinals still is a bit questionable, but he didn't instill trust in the few chances he did receive in the postseason.

But Kuminga also put up 9.9 points per game in his second season on 52.5 percent shooting and 37.0 percent from 3-point range. All three are strong improvements from a season ago. When Wiggins was away from the team for a family matter, Kuminga stepped up in multiple ways.

Kuminga was willing to pick up players all over the court, no matter how tough the challenge was. He was a dedicated rebounder and multi-level scorer. With Wiggins out for the final two months of the regular season, Kuminga in 22 games (eight starts) averaged 13.4 points behind a 56.3 shooting percentage and 44.4 3-point percentage. More than half of his five-rebound games came in this stretch.

He did so 19 times for the entirety of the season, and 10 came when Wiggins was out and Kuminga earned more opportunities.

Year 3 is seen as the season players can take a leap or not. Kuminga has the confidence he can do so, if given the opportunity. His head coach believes in the talent, as well as Kuminga's desire to get better.

"Yeah, I do," Kerr said. "I think, of course, people are going to be focused on the playoffs because that's the most important time of the year, but if you look at Jonathan's regular season, he did some great things. I think the biggest thing for him is to continue to grow.

"I tell him all the time, he's got 15 years ahead of him. He's got such a long career ahead. He's got a lot of ability, and he's just in the process of learning the NBA game. He's two years in, and he's accumulated a lot of knowledge, but he's got a lot more to accumulate.

"As long as he continues to work, which I know he will, he's a great kid, he wants to be great. As long as he continues to just put his head down and work, he's going to get a lot better."

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The skill set and potential are unquestioned. Potential can only last so long, though. Production has to erase that other p-word. That's Kuminga's next test that he has to be able to pass.

If he starts with rebounding, he can check off the next box. Kuminga must give Kerr more than on-ball defense as a limited one-dimensional player. Wiggins is going to be back, as is Payton, and both will big pieces of the Warriors' puzzle -- making versatility so vital. The former top pick has to fit, too.

That's on him and the Warriors, though the responsibility first rests on Kuminga more than anybody else.

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