Kuminga doesn’t think he’s athletic enough for Slam Dunk Contest

+ observations from stint at Santa Cruz

The highlight, at least for DubNation, of Jonathan Kuminga’s game with the Santa Cruz Warriors Saturday night didn’t even occur during play.

At some point late in the first half, iirc (#sorrynotsorry for the lazy journalism, I just don’t really have the time to look up the exact specifics), LJ Figueroa and Kuminga were on a 2-on-1 fast break when a Stockton Kings player fouled Figueroa just as the three players were headed into the paint. The ref blew the whistle and Figueroa was flabbergasted by the stoppage of play, as he was already in the process of dumping the pass off to “JK” for the finish.

Kuminga finished it anyways. With a soaring dunk reminiscent of Kobe Bryant (who happened to be JK’s favorite player growing up). You can see the windmill jam in the first few seconds of our video related to this article:

It was quite a treat to the fans, especially those on our live commentary/chat, where we reached a peak of 74 concurrent users, triple the amount we usually have for regular season Warriors games, a reminder of how strong niche-y topics like JK getting minutes in G League can get. It was truly the DubNation diehards who had tuned in to quench their thirst for glimpses of Kuminga’s raw athleticism. And JK gave us what we wanted, even if the two points didn’t count.

After the game on the postgame Zoom call, I asked Kuminga if he would ever participate in the Slam Dunk Contest.

“Nah, I don’t think it’s happening,” Kuminga said. “It’s never gonna happen.”

He has a point. There’s the numbers game. After all, the field of participants dwindled to just three at All-Star Weekend 2021, although the festivities were affected by COVID. Aside from 2013 and 2014 when there were six participants, there have only been four participants at each Slam Dunk Contest since 2002.

“I’m just not that athletic,” Kuminga said when I asked for clarification.

Hmm. Okay. If we’re comparing to 2020 winner Derrick Jones, Jr. or runner-up Aaron Gordon, maybe so. Maybe this is just a reminder that the guys who get picked for the Slam Dunk Contest, they have some hops that are purely magical, for lack of better words.

And maybe the crop of Kuminga’s peers in the 2021 NBA Draft have some athleticism that he’s been more privy to than we have. Most observers agree that it was one of the deepest, most athletic drafts the NBA has ever had.

But it’s also all relative, right? JK does have what we would normally call “freakish athleticism”, if we’re talking about the game in general and not the specialized event known as the Slam Dunk Contest. It was on display on this night in Santa Cruz, on both ends of the floor.

Head coach Seth Cooper even said that Kuminga gave a smile after the windmill as if what he’d done was nothing (see first embedded video above, after the clip of the dunk). But Cooper also applied JK’s athleticism to the other side of the court, noting that whomever Kuminga covered was having trouble scoring, labeling his defense as “elite”. Probably the second-best Kuminga highlight of the night was his chase-down, two-handed block of a layup.

Overall, I thought Kuminga looked more aggressive than at Wednesday’s preseason game at Chase Center against Team Ignite, maybe even too aggressive. The bad news is, he tried to dribble through a couple double-teams up top, one of which resulted in a rather easy steal by Stockton and a dunk at the other end. But the good news is, JK showed off some dribbling skills I didn’t know he had, such as a behind-the-back crossover. On one drive into traffic he even crossed over twice, then got fouled. As the game progressed, he started to probe through the double-teams a bit less and got rid of the ball earlier, so he did adjust to the game plan of Kings’ head coach and former Sacramento great Bobby Jackson.

That’s the other thing that stood out for me. JK gets a lot of calls. And I think it’s due to the fact that he’s, well, a freakish athlete, officially listed at 6’7” on Wednesday’s rosters although the Draft Combine website has him at 6’8”. Why the 6’3” Stephen Curry doesn’t get calls often comes up during games on our usual live commentary streams and I think there is a direct correlation on that with size and athleticism, as well as the NBA wanting their referees to be more robotic and technically accurate with the whistles, rather than have player reputation be part of their judgments. So while our two-time MVP can’t seem to get any calls, our young rookie phenom can. This will be a key attribute as JK continues to very gradually get more time in the NBA. Picture this advantage two or three years from now in crunch time.

The ability to get downhill in the halfcourt is still there for Kuminga and Cooper said it will be the Warriors’ job to put JK’s athleticism on full display.

Steve Kerr joined the game broadcast with Kevin Danna and Drew Shiller at halftime and said the primary goal tonight was to get Kuminga to run hard at both ends of the court because that’s how the NBA goes. Cooper reiterated this in the postgame recap. I thought there were a couple of instances early in the game where JK wasn’t always at full speed, but he picked up until when the game was pretty much decided.

All in all, it’s pretty amazing to think that this kid is just 19 years old and will only continue to get better. When given the opportunity such as this G League stint, he does show flashes of his idol Kobe, such as a little juke to create space from a defender who was draped on him, for a desperation three from the corner really late when the game was pretty much decided. The ball clanged off the rim, but had it gone in, I was thinking that a bunch of Santa Cruz residents, who had just filed out of the building quickly at the two-minute mark with the loss apparent, would’ve missed another promising thing about JK’s future.

Now, by no means am I saying Kuminga is on a trajectory to be the next Kobe, and this is all probably just more a symptom of my penchant for writing too much and wanting to analyze little things about the game like some guy with an engineering degree would, but it was just cool to see that JK has a bag and he got to take a few things out of it on this night. And yet still do some fundamental things as Kerr and Cooper described. If I forgot any details, I’ll add them later in the comments below.

It’ll be hard for me not to tune into the next Kuminga G League assignment. If there’s no conflict with the “big squad” (as is the parlance in the Warriors organization) I might even have to make that drive down Highway 17. I’d rather have someone share driving duties, especially on the way back, so let me know if you wanna join me…