Frank Kaminsky is the NBA’s Most Unique Rookie
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Frank Kaminsky wanders around the Hornets locker room rapping random Future lyrics. Or maybe it’s Jeezy. He calls point guard Kemba Walker “Dad.” He has a special handshake — an actual old-school handshake — with veteran big man Spencer Hawes. He did “The Dougie” in China.
“That was the funniest thing I’ve seen in my life,” fellow Hornets rookie Aaron Harrison said of the moment before a preseason game.
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The NBA is full of funny players. Trash-talk builds a quick wit, and if you give enough young men millions of dollars, some are going to have fun with it. Kaminsky is a different sort, though. “He’s got a unique mind, I guess I could say,” Hornets veteran Brian Roberts said. “Then guys like Al (Jefferson) kind of egg him on a little bit to keep it going, say some off-the-wall stuff.”
“Unique” defines Kaminsky. He’s not an on-court jester, though. He’s the NCAA player of the year who led Wisconsin to consecutive Final Fours. He’s the prospect the Hornets wouldn’t let slip out of their hands despite “a ‘Godfather’ offer” from the Celtics, who wanted Justise Winslow with the No. 9 pick in the strong 2015 NBA Draft. He’s the 7-foot center who used to be a point guard, who spent four years in college but was invisible for half of them, who now has become a go-to option on the second unit of a team desperate to make the playoffs.
Kaminsky’s skill set stands out as much as his temperament. He doesn’t fit neatly into the roles assigned to today’s (or any day’s) power forwards. He wants to dribble at the top of the key or to shoot from the wings or to make the big play. And the weirdest part — he can do some of that already.
“You don’t want to start saying ‘Nowitzki’ because that’s not fair,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said, referring to the Mavericks’ Dirk. “But there’s not many guys his size I’ve ever seen in this league that have his feel for the game offensively. He’s 7 feet tall, and he drives by almost everybody. And as he gets stronger, I think a lot of the things he did in college, you’ll see.”
For now, we are seeing an intriguing rookie fighting his way to an increased role, with equal parts success and failure. That’s normal at this time of the season, as rookies start to assert themselves. The past and the future, though, set Kaminsky apart.
Twenty-two is young by any reasonable measure, other than that of an NBA rookie. Kaminsky is more than five months older than teammate Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who is in his fourth NBA season.
These types of things add up. When the Hornets drafted Kaminsky, they hedged on early playing time. The front office and coaching staffs didn’t want to put pressure on him, knowing he’d need time to develop his body. But they also knew they had drafted a player who had thoroughly outplayed Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns (the first pick in the draft) and Willie Cauley-Stein (sixth overall) in the Final Four two months earlier.
“We were expecting him to get some minutes and contribute,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said recently. “There were a lot of things we liked about him. He’s very skilled, he can shoot, he can pass, he’s got a high basketball IQ, he can put the ball on the floor. So we felt there were a lot of things he could do to contribute early.”
Early doesn’t mean right away. Kaminsky averaged 9.1 minutes over his first eight games, 15.0 over his first 18.
He’s used to waiting. Kaminsky entered college in fall 2011, the same year as Hornets teammate Cody Zeller. They both joined Big Ten Conference powers. But Zeller was the five-star recruit who started right away for Indiana and was selected fourth overall after his sophomore season.
“He was definitely a role player for them,” Zeller said. “I think he played single-digit minutes the couple times we played against them. So yeah, I didn’t know him.”
Kaminsky shrugged when told that Zeller didn’t know who he was in college. He played 8.9 minutes per game in his first two seasons at Wisconsin, 7.3 in four games against Indiana — which his Badgers swept, by the way.
“I was still growing into my body when I got into college,” Kaminsky said. “I didn’t really have any strength or any figure. … My mindset was different. I got way more frustrated back then, and I’d let it take over, and I’d kind of just play myself out of things. It just took a while for me to grow up.”
He grew into an NCAA star, earning every accolade short of champion in his senior season, when he averaged 18.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists a game and shot 54.7 percent from the field and 41.6 percent on 3-pointers. But the circuitous route made his draft stock difficult to measure.
The Knicks fell in love with Kaminsky and thought about trading down or even drafting him all the way up at No. 4. Several other teams reportedly were interested, as well. But few had him ahead of Justise Winslow, the 19-year-old athletic small forward with immense potential who played a major role in Duke’s title game victory against Wisconsin.
Winslow slipped to No. 9, the Celtics reportedly made an offer, and the Hornets didn’t budge. Kaminsky was their man, and the result was a slew of criticism from national and local (Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium is about two hours from Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena) media alike. Winslow earned playing time right away with the veteran Heat, who drafted him 10th. And though his numbers are not good across the board — Kaminsky has outplayed him by many measures — his foibles seem more forgivable because he’s three years younger.
But, again, Kaminsky is a proven late-bloomer. And those kinds of comparisons do no one any favors; how would Winslow fit with Kidd-Gilchrist and Nicolas Batum, the Hornets’ long, athletic wing players?
“It’s one of those things where it doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you do it,” said Roberts, who spent four seasons overseas before cracking the NBA. “It adds a little bit of an edge when you’re under the radar and then blossom and continue to get better and better. … He plays well enough to do that.”
The chip on Kaminsky’s shoulder seems more visible these days than ever. The Hornets are without Zeller and Jefferson, two of their top three big men, because of injuries. They also have played a lot without Batum or Jeremy Lin, two of their three primary playmakers along with Walker.
The result is a thinner second unit. And the result of that is Kaminsky becoming a go-to option.
“It’s been gradual,” Clifford said. “We’re posting him more and more, and we try to do things where he’s catching the ball facing the basket on the perimeter. He can play in the pick-and-roll or dribble-handoff, and he can also handle the ball. So a lot of it, frankly, is just more out of the flow part of the offense, but he’s getting some play calls.”
Clifford has used Kaminsky in similar situations as he used Josh McRoberts two years ago, when the then-Bobcats made the playoffs in a surprise run. McRoberts handled the ball on the perimeter but mostly found teammates with his passing ability. Kaminsky, Clifford says, is a scorer first.
Scoring requires confidence, and confidence requires opportunity. “It dipped, for sure,” he said of his mind state in November. “That had a lot to do with me being my own worst enemy.”
By mid-December, he was firing. In a one-month span between Dec. 21 and Jan. 20, Kaminsky averaged 11.6 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists a game. That stretch coincided with the worst of the season for the Hornets, though, as they went 4-12 amid injuries and inconsistency.
One of the challenges of having a player like Kaminsky is that he is most effective with the ball. He can shoot 3-pointers from the corner, but his creativity only is fully tapped when he’s at the top of the key, directly involved in the play. He dribbles before a shot more frequently than any of the five other Hornets big men, even though his shooting percentages are much better when he doesn’t.
“You have to adjust how you play,” said Hawes, a similarly versatile big man who has drastically reduced his ball handling over the years. “He’s used to being the biggest guy in some of his moves, when he spins and when he shoots over people. So he’s adjusting. Take a game like tonight (last month against the Jazz), he came out and got his s— beat up a few times. But he made adjustments … and had a nice second half. He’s a quick learner.”
The biggest surprise may be Kaminsky’s defense. Bluntly, it’s not as bad as many expected. The Hornets allow 1.8 points per 100 possessions fewer with him on the court.
More importantly, he’s shown versatility. No one expected him to be a rim-protecting center, but he’s taken to the power forward role and looks comfortable defending on the perimeter — even when he switches on to Kevin Durant.
“In college, you always force guys to help,” Kaminsky said. “You can always have people helping and rotating. In the NBA, it’s much more difficult because there’s so many more shooters and so many better players. So when you do get switched on to a guy like that, you hope he doesn’t try to embarrass you. Moving my feet and trying to stay in front of him is what I do. It doesn’t always work out that way, but when it does, I’m really happy about it.”
The next steps
Kaminsky’s disposition isn’t really the question. The Hornets didn’t draft a skill set; Kaminsky impressed with his personality and knowledge of the game.
“The good thing about Frank is he knows when to play and when to lock in and be serious; that’s really rare for a rookie,” veteran Marvin Williams said. “I get here early, and he beats me here every day. When I get here, he’s usually done lifting weights and getting out to the court to get his shots up. And that’s every day.”
The Hornets had the No. 9 pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, too. They selected Noah Vonleh, the second of three Big Ten power forwards they would draft in consecutive top 10s, along with Zeller and Kaminsky. But Vonleh was injured early on and never found his rhythm on or off the court before being traded to the Trail Blazers for Batum.
Kaminsky has the buy-in of the organization. Most of the Hornets’ rotation can hit free agency this offseason, and Jefferson’s future with the team has drawn skepticism after a rough season. Either way, Kaminsky and Zeller, who has taken well to the center position, have the look of the frontcourt of the future.
Hornets fans got their first extended taste of that pairing in a Nov. 23 game against the Kings, when they played the final 20-plus minutes together to spearhead a 22-point comeback and overtime victory.
They complement each other. Zeller’s athleticism and quickness stand out, making him an effective screen-setter who rolls hard to the basket. Kaminsky is all about skill and finesse — even as Clifford repeatedly harps on his strength as a concern.
“He can do a lot of things,” said the coach, who signed a three-year extension earlier this season. “He can ISO, he can post, a lot of the things he did in college. … The biggest thing with him now is getting stronger. A lot of these 5-footers now will be layups as he gets stronger.”
The weights will help his versatility, too. The small-ball era doesn’t call for twin 7-footers often, though Zeller and Kaminsky have the quickness to guard perimeter players. But imagining Kaminsky lined up at center, imagining him draining 3-pointers off the catch, imagining him passing with authority and even leading the fast break on occasion — that’s the end goal.
“I don’t see too many fives in the future that can guard Frank,” Williams said. “Charlotte got it right when they drafted him. Absolutely.”
But there are no absolutes with Kaminsky. Everything is unique.