Last year, Frank Kaminsky was the best player on one of the best college basketball teams in the country. Now he's the eighth man for a Charlotte Hornets team fighting for its playoff life in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference.
It's safe to say life is different now.
As a senior on the national runner-up Wisconsin Badgers, Kaminsky averaged 18.8 points in 33.6 minutes per game. The reigning Naismith Player of the Year is now a role player, logging 21.5 minutes a night and averaging 7.5 points per game. He's no longer "the guy" for whom the coach designs specific plays. He's a player who has to find a way to fit in around "the guy."
"You just have to take it for what it is," Kaminsky said. "I'm still learning every game about our offense. Coach runs a play and I just go out and execute it."
Sometimes, that might mean making a dummy cut to draw the defense to one side of the floor while Al Jefferson ducks in for a post-up on the other:
Other times, it's sticking at the top of the key, playing conduit for a ball reversal that kicks off the secondary action:
It might even mean spotting up around a Kemba Walker pick-and-roll, waiting for a pass that never comes:
The same skills that made Kaminsky an All-American are still there. They're just now used in a supporting capacity instead of a starring one.
Kaminsky can still shoot. He's knocking down 31.8 percent of his deep tries so far, which isn't exceptional, but isn't that far short of league average for a big man. He's one of only eight players listed with at least a partial center designation to nail multiple threes in 10 or more games this season.
He can still put the ball on the floor, under control. He's sixth in drives per 36 minutes among the same group of big men, per analysis from SportVU data via NBA.com. Those drives have been only moderately successful (he ranks 59th out of 130 players averaging at least 1.5 drives per game in "Score Percentage," a measure of how often a player scores as a percentage of his drives), but being able to actually drive the ball is the first step to being successful off the dribble.
And he can still use his passing gifts. He's eighth among 7-footers in assist percentage (the percentage of teammate baskets a player assists on) this season, per Basketball-Reference. That's two spots ahead of Karl-Anthony Towns, whose passing is widely (and rightly) praised. His 9.9 assist percentage is actually 13th all time for a 7-plus-foot rookie.
"I'm comfortable with it. That's what I did in college. I was able to put the ball on the floor, make plays. In situations like that, I just try to set screens for guys, create action to help," Kaminsky said. "Defenses are different. The way an NBA team rotates, there's a lot more traps off ball screens, things like that. So when I catch the ball and I see someone coming at me, that obviously means the next person's open. I just try to make the right play."
More often than not, he's been able to do that, as evidenced by an assist-to-turnover ratio over 1.5-to-1. He's not a plus offensive option just yet, but the tools are still there for him to be one, and you can occasionally see glimpses. There was a 15-6-4 game against the Thunder; a 15-6-3 against the Grizzlies; a 5-7-6 against the Heat; and he even salvaged a poor shooting night with eight rebounds, three assists and two steals against the Kings.
With the way the league is trending toward playmaking 4s who can shoot, put the ball on the ground and/or make the right pass out of pick-and-rolls, that's a good sign for Kaminsky's eventual ability to develop into a quality player. The bigger questions will come on defense, where there's still a lot of work for Kaminsky to do to get up to speed.
He has the size and bulk to hang with some players in the post, like Chris McCullough here, but put him up against the quicker and more athletic Thaddeus Young, and it's an issue:
He still needs to learn the nuances of when and how far to step up in help-defense situations, as well:
Kaminsky himself admitted that side of the floor has been a much more significant adjustment. "There has been [some things I've struggled with]," he said. "I had never downed a ball screen—forced it to the baseline—until I got into the NBA. Everything was different for me in college. I struggled with that for a little bit. I had to learn the calls, different things. It's so much more complex than the normal right and left call that you're used to."
This is yet another reminder that the NBA learning curve is steep. Downing a ball screen, otherwise known as "icing," is the most basic way NBA teams play pick-and-roll coverage these days. Tom Thibodeau pioneered that defense, and Hornets head coach Steve Clifford, who worked with Thibodeau as an assistant on Jeff Van Gundy's Knicks teams, is a practitioner as well.
By his own admission, he's still learning how to do it. "It didn't always go well. I got tongue-tied a lot," Kaminsky said. "I didn't always know what to call out. But I feel like I'm much more comfortable with it now."
Even with a ton of practice and reps, though, he may never be a plus defender. He's tall, sure, but he's not a great rim protector. Per Nylon Calculus' analysis of SportVU data, Kaminsky contests only 24.6 percent of shots at the rim, an absurdly low number. And when he does contest those shots, opponents connect better than 51 percent of the time, which is also not great.
Can he get better? Sure, but he'll never be an impact defender. NBA 4s and even 5s will exploit slower-than-average foot speed and mediocre athleticism, both out in space and in the post.
Kaminsky will have to maximize every bit of his offensive talent to live up to the expectations that come with being the No. 9 pick in the draft.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.