DALLAS — Frank Kaminsky III wasn’t good enough.
Long before he propelled Wisconsin to its first Final Four in 14 years—before he caught the eye of NBA scouts and became a target of the college basketball paparazzi—that’s what the Badgers’ 7-foot center was told.
Kaminsky was 15 when he arrived at a gym the summer before his sophomore year of high school with his bags packed, eager for his first road trip with his new AAU squad. Instead, Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins informed him that he hadn’t made the travel roster. He could still practice with the team, Mullins said, but he wouldn’t play in games.
While the rest of the Wolves loaded into a van, Kaminsky retreated to his father’s car.
He cried the whole way home.
“It was the best thing that ever happened to him,” Frank Kaminsky Jr. said. “It made him hungrier. It made him realize that just being tall wasn’t good enough. He was going to have to work a lot harder if he wanted to succeed.”
Kaminsky never felt sorry for himself again.
He spent the ensuing months working out with the Wolves on the court and in the weight room, eventually becoming an integral part of their team the following summer. Years later, after arriving at Wisconsin as an unheralded member of the Badgers’ 2011 signing class, he took the same approach.
Kaminsky, who wasn’t nationally ranked by any recruiting service, averaged just 2.9 points and 1.6 rebounds off the bench in his first two years in Madison. Not once did he complain.
“It’d be tough for any young man to go from being a high school star to all of a sudden not playing,” Kaminsky Jr. said. “It’s a big adjustment, but that’s part of being a Badger. You mature physically and mentally and you learn Coach (Bo) Ryan’s system.
“You play when you’re ready.”
No one can say Kaminsky was ill-prepared for his junior campaign. Realizing a starting spot was available on a team that lost its entire frontcourt to graduation, he spent the offseason adding moves to his offensive skillset. Pivots, up-and-unders, hook shots.
“Anything that would make me more of a weapon,” Kaminsky said.
A Chicago native, Kaminsky set the tone early by scoring a school-record 43 points against North Dakota on Nov. 19. He’s played at a high level ever since.
NBA scouts love Kaminsky’s versatility. Along with his arsenal of moves in the paint, he has a soft shooting touch that makes him a threat from the outside. Rare is the 7-footer that can swish a three-pointer as easily as he can a free throw. But that describes Kaminsky to a T.
Kaminsky made 3-of-5 shots from beyond the arc against Arizona. On the season he’s shooting 52.7 percent from the field, 76.5 percent from the foul stripe and 37.8 percent from three-point range. He averages 14.1 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
One of the reasons Kaminsky is so comfortable away from the basket is his late growth spurt. As a high school freshman, he was a 6’1” point guard. By the time he was a junior, he was a 6’10” post. Kaminsky, though, never lost his coordination or ball skills as he got taller.
“I came in as some awkward, 7-foot tall freshman,” Kaminsky said. “Coach Ryan helped me take the next step and develop my game and become the player I am today. He doesn’t get the top-ranked guys. He gets the guys who are going to buy into his system.”
Indeed, Kaminsky’s basketball IQ is another one of his biggest strengths. His knowledge and feel for the game was developed largely because of the time he spent as a child around his father, who played professionally overseas before coaching at the high school and small college level.
Kaminsky’s levelheadedness and savvy were on display during at last week’s West Regional, where he was repeatedly praised for his patience after catching the ball in the paint.
While some post players get rattled and sped up, he often lets three-to-four seconds pass before making a move toward the basket. In other words, he lets things develop around him, sees how the defense reacts and then either takes the shot himself or uses a head fake to draw a second defender, freeing up an open teammate.
“Frank is so calm when he gets the ball,” sophomore forward Sam Dekker said. “It’s almost astounding how patient he is and how deliberate he is with his stuff. He doesn’t let people quicken his pace. He plays at his pace.”
Kaminsky said his delayed movements are calculated.
“I take my time,” he said. “I don’t panic. If you do that, you’ll get what you want.”
Kaminsky is confident his success will continue—but he knows it won’t come easily against Kentucky in the NCAA semifinals.
The Wildcats are the nation’s most talented team, with as many as seven first-round draft picks in the rotation. Starting center Willie Cauley-Stein is likely out with an injured ankle, but Kentucky still has plenty of bodies (Julius Randle, Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee) to throw at Kaminsky, who has already seen his share of talented big men such as Baylor’s Cory Jefferson and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon.
Kaminsky said one of the Badgers’ strengths is their ability to adapt to different styles, whereas in the past, Wisconsin was known as a defensive-oriented team that liked to slow the pace and keep the score in the 50s.
“(We) talked before the season about how we were going to change the culture,” Kaminsky said. “We wanted to play our own brand of basketball this year. We still have the principles Coach instilled in us. We’re still a defensive team. But we mixed in offense this year.
“It’s shown with this run in the tournament. We’ve been ready for whoever is next.”
Another reason for Wisconsin’s success is its chemistry. Kaminsky said most of the Badgers live near one another and often gather to play pingpong or video games. The camaraderie off the court clearly translates to success on it, where Wisconsin prides itself in selflessness and taking quality shots.
“Not bad for a bunch of white guys,” he joked after Saturday’s Elite Eight overtime win against Arizona.
On a team full of personalities, Kaminsky stands out. His hair is rarely combed, his eyelids appear heavy and he often looks unkempt, as if he’s just woken up from a nap. Kaminsky is also known to cover his mouth with a towel so he can talk to himself during timeouts. He said it would be too crude to reveal the things he says.
Whatever Kaminsky did to motivate himself during last week’s win against Arizona certainly worked. He finished with 28 points and 11 rebounds, a stat line that helped him earn Most Outstanding Performer honors at the West Regional in Anaheim.
Kaminsky was ecstatic after the final horn, galloping about the court, hugging teammates and posing with the trophy.
“It felt like we won the lottery,” he said. “If I ever won the lottery, that’s how I’d celebrate.”
In Kaminsky, the Badgers feel as if they’ve hit the jackpot.
“I knew he’d be a good player,” Kaminsky’s father said. “But I can’t honestly say that I never thought he’d be as dominant as he’s been these past few games.”
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.