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NBA

Golden State Warriors’ young prospects: Wiseman, Kuminga, Moody...

The NBA champions have amassed a tremendous crop of youngsters that may prove key to further success in the long term. James Wiseman has the potential to be a dominant center.

Update:
The NBA champions have amassed a tremendous crop of youngsters that may prove key to further success in the long term. James Wiseman has the potential to be a dominant center.
Alex GoodlettAFP

There are many ways to look at the Golden State Warriors’ NBA championship win. For one, it’s the resurgence of a dynasty after two seasons without even reaching the Playoffs. A title victory two years after Kevin Durant’s departure, coupled with major injuries, left the Warriors as the worst team in the NBA: 15-50, before the league restarted in the Florida bubble. This is, certainly, a triumph for the old guard, for the men who’ve been the cornerstones of what is now, without doubt, one of the best teams in history: head coach Steve Kerr, and the quartet of Stephen Curry (now firmly established among the greatest ever); Klay Thompson (who returned after a 941-day injury nightmare); Draymond Green; and Andre Iguodala, who departed for financial reasons in 2019 and returned last summer, with one foot now on the court and the other in the organisational chart - bench, front office - of a franchise it’s hard to see him leaving in the future.

The Warriors’ 2022 win is also a victory for the roster’s middle class, for the supporting cast that was essential during the regular season and, above all, in the Playoffs. Andrew Wiggins has gone from toxic contract to useful player, and from there to earning his first All-Star selection. He’s a player with a new, lower profile; a grafter. Kevon Looney has left his fitness issues behind, played every game of the season and now has his third championship ring with the franchise. And has had moments where he has been absolutely essential (defence, rebounding…). Gary Payton II and Otto Porter, important to the identity of the team in defence, have been at the heart of a rotation in which the Serb Nemanja Bjeliça has come in and out.

Past, present... and also future

But this is also a triumph for the youngsters who represent the Warriors’ future. A warning from the team that wants to establish a thousand-year empire. Because the Warriors have a young core that has the potential to be truly elite: James Wiseman (21 years old, No. 2 pick in the 2020 Draft); Jonathan Kuminga (19, 7th in 2021); Moses Moody (20, 14th in 2021). And, of course, Jordan Poole, so far the most influential of all. 23 years old, No. 28 in 2019, and already an important player in the rotation. One whose future has been talked about for months.

Moody and Kuminga are the youngest pairing in history with a ring. In fact, only Darko Milicic (18 years and 361 days) was a champion before Kuminga (19, 253) and only Talen Horton-Tucker (19, 361) before Moody (20, 16). They are two players with enormous potential, lottery picks in the last Draft. Moody, a shooting guard/small forward; Kuminga, a small forward/power forward. They have not had much of a presence this season but they have offered cause for optimism in the minutes they have had. And they have earned praise from everyone in the organisation for their work ethic and intelligence. Kuminga, a physical powerhouse with enormous potential, has had more game time, especially when Green has been injured. Moody has worked in the shadows but has had major moments, including an appearance in the Western Conference Finals against the Dallas Mavericks.

Poole (who averaged 13.2 points in the Finals against the Boston Celtics) is clearly further on in his development, with an extension to his rookie contract now pending. This brings with it the prospect of a significant pay packet… or doubts hanging over his Warriors future, if negotiations do not bear fruit: he has until 17 October to sign his extension. If a deal isn’t reached, the guard will be a restricted free agent next summer. His defensive weakness contrasts with his attacking talent and ability to score. And his ceiling has skyrocketed after a very good season in which he has shaken off suggestions that he was going to end up being another Warriors Draft failure, like Jacob Evans, Pat McCaw, Damian Jones...

Wiseman is the great unknown, the X factor. The wildcard. No. 2 in the 2020 Draft, chosen behind Anthony Edwards and ahead of LaMelo Ball. A 7-footer with unlimited potential who showed very little as a rookie (inconsistent on offence, clumsy on defence) and has spent his second season sidelined by a nasty knee injury that has dragged on since April 2021 and that included a relapse in March. The Warriors have not lost an iota of faith in him, and believe that the problems he had as a rookie are due to the fact that, generally, big centers tend to have a harder time adjusting their game and adapting to the NBA.

Warriors opt against short-term recruits

In any other franchise, you’d have expected that nucleus of youngsters to persuade the franchise to bring in a star or a couple of top players capable of contributing more in the short term. To make the most of Curry’s prime. This is what LeBron James’ teams always do, for example, and successfully so: it’s why Kevin Love was signed by the Cleveland Cavaliers, and why Anthony Davis went to the Los Angeles Lakers... Many criticised the Warriors for thinking too much about the future, warning that they would spoil a present in which they have a generational star in Curry. But they’ve won the championship without needing anything those guys couldn’t yet offer. And they’ve been able to work with them, develop them and forge what may be the essence of their next great team.

The No. 2 pick with which Wiseman was chosen was earned with that worst-in-the-league record in the NBA in the bubble season, 2019/20. Durant was gone and the rest of the recipe for disaster was completed by the injuries: Thompson, Curry... Defeat in the 2021 Play-In tournament (first against the Lakers, then against the Memphis Grizzlies) left the Warriors with the last lottery pick (No. 14: Moses Moody)... when the team already had the 7th selection thanks to a deal that was not viewed favourably at the time but has ended up being a triumphant success: Durant left after agreeing to a sign and trade. He took with him to the Brooklyn Nets a first-round pick in exchange for a package that included D’Angelo Russell. The Warriors then used Russell to get Wiggins out of Minnesota... and also received a Draft pick that sweetened the deal for the Canadian. That pick the Wolves dropped to get Wiggins out their sight ended up being a very high one (No. 7: Kuminga). And Wiggins, to top it off, immersed himself in the culture in San Francisco Bay and this season was a starter in the All-Star Game and probably the second best player in the Finals.

Next season, the quartet of Wiseman, Moody, Poole and Kuminga will only receive $22.9 million between them. That’s a blessing for a team that threatens to spend more than $400m on paying its players, between salaries and luxury tax. They can continue to grow at their own pace if the likes of Looney and Payton II continue on the roster... or they can start to be used as important elements of the rotation, on the front line of the fight, if there isn’t enough room in the Warriors’ finances to extend the contracts of the middle class. Or if their talent earns them a higher share of minutes. In any case, the Warriors have a range of options at their disposal, thanks to a batch of youngsters that is by no means the norm at an NBA champion. So beware: the franchise’s reign threatens to go on and on.

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