Jonathan Kuminga is becoming a defensive force for the Warriors

SAN FRANCISCO — The Hornets completely melted the Warriors’ 18-point lead in the second half. He was tied at 101 with just over three minutes left. Charlotte had possession. The ball found its way to PJ Washington in the corner.

Washington is a great qualifier. He throws 3s and hits them to a capable clip, but doesn’t have an overly explosive first move. He wants space and, in this case, has tried to fend off Jonathan Kuminga, his defender, a few times to get it.

But Kuminga left him no room to breathe. He’s quicker laterally than Washington and increasingly aggressive, assuming his role as the Warriors’ go-to individual defender. As Washington sent him those few soft kicks, Kuminga only got closer and became more invasive. Washington left the ball exposed. Kuminga snatched it.

The steal was one of the most popular post-game topics after the Warriors secured a much-needed 110-105 victory. The quotes that emerged on Kuminga’s defense from two of the loudest and most influential voices in the room raise an eyebrow.

“He looked like Andre Iguodala on that game,” head coach Steve Kerr said. “It’s an André type game. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Andre coached him throughout the season and last year.

“It was willpower,” Draymond Green said. “It was ‘I want the ball more than you.’ It was “Our backs are against the wall. We lost our minds. Let me make a play myself. So he took the ball. He goes for a dunk. He goes and snatches a rebound traffic. He made every play on the stretch. I think it all started with that play with PJ Washington taking the ball. He manhandled it.

Kuminga played the entire fourth quarter. He wouldn’t have done it if Andrew Wiggins had been available. But Wiggins’ prolonged absence has opened the door for Kuminga and he’s taken a firmer stance in a rotation spot over the past two weeks due to his attacking point defence.

“We went with him in his defense,” Kerr said. “He plays very well defensively and he was guarding LaMelo (Ball).”

“At the moment – in the fourth quarter,” Kuminga admitted, “I’m not used to being in the game.”

Kuminga found crack space for two huge cutting dunks in the closing minutes. He was shooting 6 for 6. He also had a float against Gordon Hayward isolated with less than 90 seconds left to give the Warriors a five-point lead. You can watch the offensive clips here. After the Hornets called time out, Green began shoving Kuminga in celebration.

But Green specifically mentioned the big bounce. The Warriors are a small team in desperate need of an injection of controlled athleticism. Kuminga is in the top percentile of NBA athletes and that’s starting to have a positive impact — like the aforementioned defensive rebound, seen below, where he flies over Mason Plumlee to secure important possession with three minutes remaining.

Ball shot 7 of 25. Six of those misses came in a terrible fourth quarter. The last of them sealed the loss of Charlotte. It came after a missed free throw from Klay Thompson, keeping the Warriors at five. Ball tried to push him into the frontcourt with 10 seconds left to get a quick score. But he was being chased all over the pitch by Kuminga, who spent much of the night – and the past month – hunting down ballhandlers.

Here is that example.

This is a vital development for a Warriors team that lost one of the best offensive point defensemen in the NBA this summer. Gary Payton II, who led the NBA in steals per 36 minutes, left a void on his way to Portland. Donte DiVincenzo and Moses Moody have their strengths, but neither can mow like Payton.

Kuminga isn’t quite as seasoned, but his physical skills are off the charts and, after stepping out of rotation at the start of the season, seems to be embracing his bench role as a defence-obsessed pest on the ball.

“He’s locking himself in now,” Green said. “I think it’s very impressive to see. Not that you never thought he was capable of it, but to see the maturity and purchase of a role. Like, ‘Oh, that’s my job, that’s what I have to do. I will do this better than anyone. We have seen its impact over the past few weeks. He peddles all the leaders he rides. … As a competitor, you lose your place in the rotation, what are you going to do to get it back? Some sulk. Most sulk. So some will take it back. That’s what he did.

Green’s words should not land lightly. When he talks about defense, he doesn’t often deliver these kinds of platitudes. These are significant statements about a second-year winger who he clearly believes has the potential to be an elite defender.

“It was a beautiful thing to watch,” Green said. “It’s his (enhanced) understanding of that side of the ball. He’s in the right place more often now. I think his growth in that area has been absolutely amazing. Frankly, we really needed that. “We haven’t protected the dribble penetration well. We haven’t been really good on offense all year. He changes that for us.

Kuminga is disruptive on the ball and dangerous when locked into an individual mission. But for him to really emerge and continue to close out key games for the Warriors, he still needs to improve within the team concept, right? This question was posed to Green.

“I don’t play defense in the team concept,” Green said. “I know most people think I do, but I don’t. When you’re good enough, team concepts adapt around you. That’s what he’s starting to show. We may not want it to go as high as it goes all the time. But if you wreak havoc and it improves us and it worsens the opponent’s attack, who’s going to say stop? When you’re good enough and you’re capable, team concepts adapt around you.

It’s Green, one of the greatest defenders of a generation, who launches into a defensive conversation about Kuminga.

“(Other) guys are learning,” Green continued. “You’ll even now hear (coaches) say, ‘Hey, we’re doing this on a screen. So Loon will be like, ‘Hey, I’m not doing this with JK. He’s going to be in the ball too much and I can’t get a good red (cover). So I’m just going to do a cover with JK (it’s different). It is to adapt to him. What he does is good enough for me to adapt instead of saying, “No, JK, I really need you to get into that red (cover).” No. He’s so good at this something that we are going to adapt. Understanding team concepts is extremely important. He learns. He helps. He does the things that need to be done on that side. But when you show the skills he has on that side of the ball, you’d be silly to say, “Hey, we need you to go do this.”

This seems like a noticeable development.

(Photo of Warriors’ Jonathan Kuminga scoring against Hornets’ Gordon Hayward: Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

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