Look out, NBA: Golden State has no plans of slowing down thanks to young core
- Ohm Youngmisuk has covered the Giants, Jets and the NFL since 2006. Prior to that, he covered the Nets, Knicks and the NBA for nearly a decade. He joined ESPNNewYork.com after working at the New York Daily News for almost 12 years and is a graduate of Michigan State University.
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PRACTICE BEFORE GAME 2 of the NBA Finals had not begun yet, but rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody took a moment on the Golden State Warriors bench to soak up the rare atmosphere inside Chase Center.
Everywhere their young eyes turned, there was a not-so-subtle reminder of exactly where they were. Flashing repeatedly on the gigantic big screen, on the LED board that wraps around the arena, on the scorer’s table and even on the seats they were sitting in, the NBA Finals cursive-script logo and Larry O’Brien Trophy were impossible to miss.
“What do you think?” Kuminga asked Moody as they looked at the Finals signage.
“What do you think when it’s us running this team one day?”
While Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were fortifying the Golden State dynasty by winning their fourth championship in eight years and defeating the Boston Celtics, the Warriors were also doing something that no champion in recent memory has done. As coach Steve Kerr put it, the Warriors were also “raising” two 2021 NBA lottery picks during this title run and hoping the championship masterclass Kerr and his Big Three delivered each day of their quest left a permanent imprint on the pair.
“They’re going to have to [eventually] chart their own course, and fight their own fight,” said Bob Myers, the Warriors’ president of basketball operations. “They’re lucky that they get to see what it looks like.
“Steph, Klay and Draymond never got this advanced kind of scouting on what the Finals is and the playoffs. They had to go through it and find a path. This is why it’s huge for young guys to just taste it, see it and hopefully crave it.”
Kuminga and Moody will be parading down Market Street in San Francisco with the Larry O’Brien Trophy during Monday’s Warriors championship parade, nearly a year after they were drafted.
Kuminga and Moody are the first rookie lottery-pick teammates to play in the NBA Finals, and they are the youngest pair of teammates to win a championship, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Add on 2020 No. 2 overall pick James Wiseman — who missed this past season because of a knee injury, though Myers says he is expected to go through contact soon and participate in next month’s summer league — and Golden State returns a trio of lottery picks in their third season or less for the title defense.
The tradeoff of going through the misery of losing Thompson to two devastating injuries and Curry to a wrist injury, enduring 50 losses in 2019-20 and not making the playoffs for two straight seasons is a championship core and a new generation of lottery talent to groom in Wiseman, Kuminga and Moody. Along with 23-year-old Jordan Poole, the young players will push for more significant roles next season.
Green had his doubts earlier this past season about whether this was the recipe for another championship: a combination of experienced vets and young first-round picks to develop.
“When you look around at how championship teams have historically been built, unless it is a super young team like the Warriors early on that had veterans around us, then you just really haven’t seen it before,” Green said. “Historically, we just hadn’t seen it work.”
Golden State resisted the urge to trade away its future to add more experience after it started the season 27-6, and the Warriors made it back to the NBA mountaintop again. While most defending champs have to find creative ways to keep key players and improve, the Warriors next season will boast a pair of homegrown lottery picks who enter their second year with invaluable playoff and Finals experience, no matter how little they played.
Now, the Warriors’ championship DNA also flows through Kuminga and Moody.
“Most people spend their career chasing that,” Green said. “And worried like, I need to get to this team, I need to be around these guys, we need that coach. If you are not a loser, which we have a bunch of come through this league, then you worry about that your entire career.
“For them to not have that worry moving forward, like you already have that stamp of ‘I’m a champion.’ Now everything you do from there, you can do it from a different space. You are not chasing anything or really wanting for that, which some people never get.”
THE INTOXICATING AROMA of champagne can be detected down the hallway from the visitor’s locker room in TD Garden after Golden State’s triumph over Boston in six games. Kuminga and Moody are soaking in something no rookie lottery-pick teammates have ever experienced.
As Warriors players go to take professional photos with the championship trophy, Kuminga, 19, holds it like a baby, nestling it into his left arm. Moody, who turned 20 last month, holds the greatest prize in the sport like an expensive guitar.
The Warriors’ grizzled veterans hope that this moment isn’t lost on the duo they’ve been trying to raise all season long into NBA champs.
“They’re 19-year-old kids,” said Andre Iguodala, who started his pro career in 2004, two years after Kuminga was born. “They’re supposed to be on college campuses learning about themselves, who they are as people, what they like instead of these guys making five-plus million dollars a year, got all the pressures, the madness of having money and being in the spotlight. You can become jaded. You can start taking these things for granted.”
These were Iguodala’s seventh NBA Finals. And he made sure to tell Kuminga and Moody to record this moment, even “take pictures.”
Articulating these tips to teens without sounding like a parent can be tricky at times with the generational gap.
Green noticed earlier this past season that every time he saw Kuminga walk by him, the teen would “start laughing.”
“I’m 32 and he’s 19,” Green said. “And what I like to do may just not be cool to him. … Imagine when you see one of the old heads doing something. … You’re really laughing at the fact that that’s so old-school that it’s funny.
“That’s how I feel like he was looking at me, like, ‘Dude, you’re just old. You move old. You look old.'”
Kuminga — a raw forward from Congo drafted No. 7 overall after playing one season with the G League Ignite — has had to be more patient than some of his lottery peers. Kuminga played a total of eight minutes in the NBA Finals. He averaged 9.3 points in 70 regular-season games and 5.2 PPG in 16 playoff appearances.
“I learned that he was a freakish athlete,” said Warriors center Kevon Looney, who will be a free agent along with Gary Payton II and Otto Porter Jr. “He’s one of those different type of athletes … like the best athletes in the NBA, Andre at his peak, guys like LeBron.”
The 6-foot-7 forward started 12 games as a rookie and played some key playoff minutes in the second round against Memphis when Green was ejected in Game 1 for a flagrant foul 2, and in Game 2 when Green needed stitches after being hit in the eye. Kuminga also scored 18 points in Golden State’s blowout win over Memphis in Game 3 and 17 points twice in blowout losses against Memphis and Dallas, respectively.
While other rookies such as Orlando’s Franz Wagner (No. 8 overall) and Sacramento’s Davion Mitchell (No. 9 overall) logged more minutes in the regular season on non-contenders, Kuminga had to bide his time and learn.
But unlike the other lottery picks, Kuminga and Moody now have championship experience.
“I never really worry about whether we’re playing, not playing,” Kuminga said. “As long as I’m still here, learning, getting better every day. When my moments get called, I know I’ll be ready. … Everybody here [is] just helping me, way more than dudes [other rookies around the league] are, wherever they are right now.”
Moody, who was drafted after one season at Arkansas, is the more polished rookie. But the shooting guard is still learning from two of the greatest shooters in the game in Curry and Thompson. He also has the emerging Poole ahead of him.
Still, Kerr played the 6-6 Moody in the Western Conference finals against Dallas, and the guard’s 65 minutes were the most in a conference finals by a teenager since Kobe Bryant’s 87 minutes in 1998. Like Kuminga, Moody played sparingly in the Finals, seeing a total of 10 minutes. During the regular season, Moody averaged 4.4 points in 52 games.
Curry, though, repeatedly lauded Moody’s approach and habits, noticing how the rookie works like an experienced veteran every day with the same intensity no matter how little playing time he was getting.
“It’s amazing to see the result in just one short year,” Curry said. “Him coming into a playoff series in the middle of the Western Conference finals and making an impact.
“That’s the stuff you’ll probably look back on and be really proud of because there’s a lot of instability around this league. Not everybody has the infrastructure and the presence to bring guys along like that.”
IN THE MIDDLE section of the Warriors’ team plane on their flight to Boston for Game 6, Myers saw Curry, Thompson and Green sitting together at the same table, laughing and joking.
Myers couldn’t help but appreciate the rarity of the moment. A trio of All-Stars, still enjoying each other’s company after a decade on the same team.
“I think they see it,” Myers said of Kuminga, Moody and Wiseman. “I hope it registers. I’m sure it does, but it might register differently with each of them. They’re all different too. Just like Steph, Klay and Draymond are different. … It’s almost like a band, that the personalities complement each other and that’s how you stay willing to sit next to each other when you don’t have to.”
Perhaps Kuminga and Moody will produce the same championship hits as their predecessors once it is their turn. All they know is, they are world champions already.
“If you give a pig a pancake, then he wants some syrup,” Moody said. “Once I get the championship, you’re going to want something else.”
As for when their turn will come to run the Warriors, Kuminga and Moody will have to wait before the Curry, Thompson and Green era is ready to hand the reins over.
“Eventually, years from now, they’ll pass the baton and see what the other guys can do,” Myers said.
“But it’s a tough act to follow, I’ll tell them that. It’s about as tough of an act to follow as you can find, whoever’s next in line to try to carry that baton.”
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