Three games into the G League Ignite experience, it’s too soon to say anything particularly conclusive, other than the fact the NBA’s fledgling development program appears to be succeeding. Ignite is out to a surprising 3-0 start, besting some of the more talented teams in the G League bubble and getting production from a quartet of draft-eligible prospects. There’s always some inclination to be overly reactive to what we see from teenage prospects. But if there’s a real, immediate takeaway as a result of what we’ve seen so far, it’s that Jonathan Kuminga has begun to rewrite the conversation at the top of the 2021 draft.
In the eyes of many around the NBA, Cade Cunningham remains the top dog, and while his season at Oklahoma State has been far from perfect, it’s still fair to call him the front-runner. USC’s Evan Mobley has essentially entrenched himself as a top-four pick, and Jalen Suggs has won some scouts over with a strong year at Gonzaga. But executives around the league are watching Kuminga with an open mind. And on the heels of three strong performances with the G League as a generally reliable evaluation context, some around the NBA are ready to consider Kuminga as a dark horse contender for the No. 1 pick moving forward.
To be clear, this is not to say that outcome will, won’t or should happen on draft night. But scouts are starting to talk about Kuminga in that way, which was not close to a certainty as recently as a few months ago. The Congo native left a strong impression behind closed doors as Ignite trained in Walnut Creek, Calif.. His physical tools were never a secret. But limited in-person visibility over the course of his high school career meant much of his hype in NBA circles stemmed from word of mouth. It was still unclear exactly how Kuminga’s modus operandi would translate in a structured game setting.
Kuminga attended three high schools in three seasons, and was last visible to NBA teams primarily at two live events in 2019: the Nike Elite 100 and Pangos All-American Camp. Kuminga attended, but sat out most of the Nike Skills Academy that summer with a wrist injury. He missed the Basketball Without Borders global camp last February due to a scheduling conflict with his high school season. The COVID-19 pandemic squelched a potential appearance at the cancelled Nike Hoop Summit. He then reclassified and graduated, before announcing his commitment to the Ignite program. Safe to say, Kuminga was never showcased to the same extent as his peers. Some wondered whether he might have been ducking competition and coasting on reputation, which, based on his decision to accept the challenge with Ignite would not seem to be the case. Scouting departments are sifting through a new wealth of evidence, and the early impressions have been overwhelmingly positive.
Now averaging 22 points, seven rebounds, three assists, a steal and a block on 45% shooting, Kuminga has emerged as the driving force behind Ignite’s early success. He’s impressed with his willingness to play within Ignite’s framework, and his feel has been much better than advertised, which has come as a surprise to those who were (understandably) less familiar with his game. “It feels like you’ll see people try to rewrite history and claim he just became a passer, instead of just owning [that] they never realized how good he was,” offered one Western Conference scout.
Kuminga did rightfully earn a bit of a label as a ball-stopper, which he’s beginning to shed with his playmaking, plus improved shot selection and better finishing quieting some efficiency concerns. While he’s not a good jump shooter yet, Kuminga has drawn stylistic comparisons in scouting circles to Jaylen Brown and Paul George, due to his body type and physicality. “His level of athleticism is just outrageous,” says an Eastern Conference scout. Watching him more or less dominate older players last week, ascribing that sort of upside feels like less of a stretch.After seeing him play a handful of scattered times in high school, I had some degree of concern over Kuminga’s bully-ball tendencies, relying more on his athleticism than skill to overpower defenders. Seeing that approach work against older players at a more physical level in the G League, it’s evident some of that was misplaced.
Moving forward, Kuminga’s shooting and ball-handling will be major determinants in reaching his considerable ceiling. His three-point makes have mostly been true, but he shoots a hard, flat shot that tends to fall apart while shooting off the dribble. His misses have been rather wild at times. But his shot isn’t broken, and there’s a chance he at least becomes a reliable set shooter and keeps defenses honest. Refining his handle to confidently attack bodies and angles going to the rim will allow Kuminga to impose his will better in the halfcourt, where he can overpower people, but can also be influenced into settling by smart defenders. Defensively, he has a world of ability, and should be capable of switching as well as sticking big wings. He projects somewhere between the three and the four on the position spectrum, and with the NBA leaning so clearly toward skilled four-men, it shouldn’t be a concern.
The other factor to consider in the context of Kuminga’s performance is the value of stability, now that he’s training regularly with Ignite and has the time and resources to put the work in and focus. “He’s been to so many damn schools there was no way he could develop,” says another Eastern Conference scout. Kuminga spent his freshman year at Huntington Prep in West Virginia, landed at Our Savior New American School in New York as a sophomore, and finished at The Patrick School in New Jersey last year, when he missed time due to state transfer rules and subsequent minor injuries. The whole saga was probably not ideal for his individual growth. There was at least some level of concern prior to the pandemic that he was plateauing a bit. Yet Kuminga has been described as a competitor who always shows up mentally for games, his relentless approach and willingness to punish defenders has backed up that assessment, and those questions may have been overwrought as a byproduct of a complicated situation.
Suffice it to say that Kuminga’s emergence is a hot topic leaguewide. His production seems real and likely to hold up. If Ignite continues winning, he becomes an even easier sell. Cunningham, Mobley and Suggs round out what is now essentially a consensus top four, with Ignite’s Jalen Green somewhere on the periphery of that group. “Can't see how you take [Kuminga] over Cade,” contends another Western Conference scout. “They’re similar in size, and Cade is a better passer and shooter. But I can see it at No. 2 if you don't like the other guys.”
While the actual depth of this draft is a different question, it does feature a much more inspiring group at the top than the 2020 class. In six weeks, with the NCAA tournament on the horizon and a large chunk of schedule left in the G League bubble, it may be time to circle back on the conversation. Now more than ever, Kuminga is squarely part of it.