How JK's changed mindset leads to 'best game' of Dubs career originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
DALLAS -- The final seconds ticked off the clock Sunday in the Warriors' 23-point victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center and there stood 20-year-old Jonathan Kuminga and coach Steve Kerr on the sidelines. With Kerr's arm around Kuminga, the young forward listened intently as he smiled from ear to ear.
Trust and confidence exuberated throughout Kuminga in that moment. Those same emotions followed him Tuesday night in the Warriors' nail-biting 116-113 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at American Airlines Center in a performance from Kuminga that the franchise envisioned when they selected him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.
"Best game I've ever seen JK play," Kerr said without hesitation after the loss. "Everything he did contributed to making an impact on winning. His defense on Luka [Doncic] was fantastic. He was disciplined, he stayed down, he challenged shots, I think he had a couple of blocks, he stayed patient offensively. He just took the shots that were there, knocked down a big three.
"JK's been fantastic. He's really coming into his own and that's very exciting."
Kuminga played 26 minutes off the bench in the loss. He scored 14 points while going 6-for-8 from the field, grabbed 10 rebounds for his first double-double of the season and third of his young career, plus added one assist and two blocks. The former top pick also was a team-high plus-21 in plus/minus, making an impact right away and throughout the game.
The stats are nice to see, no doubt there. For Kuminga, though, this all started with a change to his mindset.
A mindset that he doesn't have to put up huge numbers to make an impact. He can still impact winning or have winning intentions in ways that don't always reflect on the stat sheet. Earlier this season, Kuminga received a handful of DNPs (Did Not Play) and wanted to never be in that situation again.
Having his mental side on par with his eye-popping physical abilities have him on track to make sure that stays a reality. If you look at Kuminga's social media lately, the messages are all about being bigger than one individual. That's the message he recently relayed to Kerr, too.
"I spoke to coach the other day, I was like, 'I will try my best even if I'm not scoring. They're not going to stop me from coming again and trying to make an impact on what's really needed in the moment.'
"I'm just sitting down every day and watching back what I need to do and just knowing that I'm capable of going into the game and changing the game in different ways besides scoring."
Two games ago, Kuminga didn't take a single shot in the Warriors' win over the Utah Jazz. But he was active every second of the 13 minutes he received and was a plus-2. That broke a streak of four straight games of being on the negative side of plus/minus, along with getting a DNP.
He then followed that up with a plus-8 in nearly 20 minutes against the Timberwolves, a game where he scored an efficient seven points with six rebounds, one assist and two blocks. Tuesday night continued his streak of being in the positive with his plus/minus, and it didn't take long for him to make an impact.
The starters put the Warriors in a rare first-quarter hole before Kuminga and the second unit stepped up in Dallas. He was a plus-5 in his four minutes of first-quarter action without any shots. Then in the second quarter, he made everyone notice him.
Playing nine-and-a-half minutes, Kuminga scored eight points on a perfect 4-for-4 from the field. He was a plus-14 in that span, with four rebounds, one assist and one block as the Warriors came alive and outscored the home team 30-19 in that second period. His impact was felt in multiple ways, too.
For nearly all 94 feet of the court, Kuminga took it up himself to guard Doncic and bothered him in isolation. No matter who it was, Mavs scorers couldn't get past him. On offense, he made the game easy by slashing at the right times and letting his natural athleticism take over.
Though he was a minus-2 in the third period as the Mavs outscored the Warriors 37-33, when it mattered most, Kerr couldn't take Kuminga off the court. The Death Lineup this time consisted of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Andrew Wiggins, Draymond Green and Kuminga much of the time in the fourth quarter.
Only Green saw more playing time, 45 seconds more, than Kuminga throughout the fourth quarter. In the fourth, Kuminga came away with three rebounds -- two offensive -- six points and hit a huge 3-pointer in the final two-plus minutes to make it a one-point game. He and Curry, who also scored six points in fourth, led the Warriors in scoring over the final frame.
"There's a reason he played 26 minutes," Curry said. "I don't know the last time he's done that in a meaningful game where he's in the rotation, he's relied on, he's trusted to go do his job. I think everything he did was in the spirit of making winning plays. It was amazing to see.
"He was guarding, physical, smart, weakside blocks, rebounds, making the open pass, he made a big three down the stretch. All that stuff is huge. For his confidence, I hope he's proud of the way he played and understands there's a reason he played 26 minutes.
"Coach loved what he saw."
Does Curry agree that this was the best game Kuminga has ever played? Yes, with a dash of sarcasm.
"I'm sure he had a crazy highlight reel in a high school game or something like that," Steph said.
"I'm just messing with you," he continued. "Nah, definitely. You do what you're asked to do, play with confidence, use your God-given abilities and that's what he did out there."
Over the offseason and then early in the season as the Warriors hit some big bumps in the road, the outside noise grew regarding Kuminga's work ethic, attitude and attention to detail. Coaches and teammates came to his side, but it was clear from comments and playing time that Kerr wanted to see more from Kuminga in a multitude of ways.
Then again, this is someone who exited his teenage years not even two months ago.
His talent wasn't a question mark. Now, it can shine with a growing relationship building with the man in charge.
"It feels good," Kuminga said when asked about Kerr's trust in him. "It's good to actually -- I won't say I never had a relationship with coach, but building more and more and more, it's really important, especially for young guys. Having that trust and building that relationship with your coach is something good."
Kuminga is one of five Warriors who are 21 years old or younger on a team coming off a championship with the intention of repeating. He was the youngest on the active roster Tuesday night with Patrick Baldwin Jr. and Ryan Rollins down in the G League. And he answered the call in the Warriors' first matchup this season with the team that they took down last May in the Western Conference Finals.
That's a tough task and a tall ask for any young player, especially one whose raw skills haven't always been on par with the other parts of his game.
"It's exciting, because it's not easy," Kerr said. "It's not easy for him to be thrown into a high-pressure environment and to be counted on to win. A lot of his colleagues and guys who were drafted near him are being given 30 minutes every night and there's not nearly as much pressure to win because they're not on a championship team. He's handled everything really well. I think the way he's playing is a direct reflection of his attitude and approach these last few weeks.
"He's really understanding the value of really embracing the mentoring that his teammates are giving him and he's understanding that we are coaching him just to get him to be the best player that he can be. He's on a good track, it's nice to see."
Attitude, approach and talent. For the upside Kuminga possesses, there's no telling where his game can go next when that combination meshes together, letting his mind and skills take him and the Warriors to heights the team dreamed of when they called his name on draft night.