By Reinis Lācis
Fair or not, Charlotte Hornets’ second-year big man Frank Kaminsky will always be judged against what might have been instead of what he is becoming.
According to a report from ESPN’s Chris Forsberg, Boston Celtics’ General Managed Danny Ainge was so set on acquiring Justise Winslow that he was willing to part with a cadre of draft picks, including four first round selections, to acquire the ninth overall pick the Hornets used on Kaminsky.
Even in hindsight, passing on that treasure trove of assets seems like a wasted opportunity. But the idea of finding a low-risk player who might be ready sooner dovetails nicely with the timeline of the current core of Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in theory. And from that vantage, Kaminsky is developing into a viable rotation player.
It has been a season of added responsibility for Kaminsky. The big man entered the league in 2015 following a senior year at Wisconsin during which he was the National College Player of the Year, yet he didn’t register the counting stats to even make the NBA All-Rookie Second Team. This year Frank the Tank averaging double figures at 10.3 points per game on a playoff-bound Hornets team.
Charlotte losing a relentless penetrator in Jeremy Lin and the ever-present option of entering the ball in the post for Al Jefferson means there are extra possessions to distribute throughout the roster. The Hornets are now even more dependent on Kemba Walker, who is doing God’s work of shooting with a 57.9 True Shooting Percentage as the 14th most used player in the league (29.5 USG%). Frank Kaminsky is also among those who have had to pick up the slack, posting the team’s third-highest usage rate at 21.3 percent. To put it into context, the 7-footer was the sixth most used Hornet the previous year at 17.1 percent.
Kaminsky has responded to that role quite well and has improved in various facets on offense. His pump-fake-and-drive game has become more efficient after a horrible rookie campaign in which the Wisconsin Badger shot 32.7 percent on field goal attempts on drives, the worst mark in the league among players that attempted at least 120 drives for the season.
That number is now up to a neat 50.0 percent as the 23-year-old has seemingly become more comfortable at reading the court on the move and finding better ways of closing out the possession. A decent amount of the misses last year came on straight up scoop shots off the dribble outside the restricted area. While Kaminsky still attempts such floaters, it’s encouraging to see that the forward will now moreso take his time on such drives and use his mobility to work for better looks.
Kaminsky can make the simple floater, but when Big Frank uses his innate feel for the game and caps off a journey in the paint with a funky fake or spin, he can get a better look.
Putting the ball in the Badger’s hands has also showcased his improvement as far as passing is concerned. Kaminsky keeps the offense flowing and can make smart reads that contribute to Charlotte getting good looks.
Not too many 7-footers will make such cross-court passes.
The Hornets have posted their best AST RATIO (number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions used) of 19.5 whenever Frank Kaminsky is on the court.
That mark would be good enough for the second place in the league behind the unstoppable Golden State Warriors (the Hornets rank seventh as a team).
Though his basketball IQ keeps Charlotte’s offense humming, the big man’s presence on the court would be even more beneficial if he knocked down his three-point looks.
A staggering 78 of his 96 three-point looks have come in situations where the closest defender is more than six feet away, per NBA.com’s player tracking data. Only four players in the league have taken more wide open shots from downtown than Kaminsky has (an understandable fact since big men tend to get open looks in pick-and-pops or when their defender has been sucked in to defend the paint). Frank the Tank has only made 23 of them and his 29.5 percent ranks him as the fifth worst shooter among 29 players with at least 45 wide open 3-point looks.
His 28.1 percent from three for the season is even a drop-off from Kaminsky’s rookie season during which he made a mediocre 33.7 percent.
While some defenses will respect his soft touch and status as a supposed shooter by showing or hedging against pick-and-rolls, where Kaminsky is the screen setter, one has to wonder whether they should even do so until he finds his touch. If worse comes to worst, Kaminsky’s shot release is slow enough for defenders to blatantly run him off the three-point line, something they especially could do during his rookie year struggles when driving to the basket.
Unless his percentage from long range increases—which can happen, given the fact that Kaminsky improved from a 28.6 percent three-point shooter his freshman year to 41.6 percent as a college senior—it would help everyone involved on offense if Kaminsky played the center spot.
Naturally, his range would be more of a weapon at the five spot. Facing slower defenders could also help an off-the-dribble game that has lead to him taking a notable 23.9 percent of his field goals in between three and 10 feet (last season it was at 18.7 percent). While he’s made 50.0 percent of such looks, it will be interesting to monitor his efficiency on those attempts since the non-restricted area in the paint is a place from which the majority of the league shoots at about 40 percent.
Playing Kaminsky at center would also help against forms of small ball, which can still put him in awkward spot. Versatile wings who play the four can always switch on Kemba Walker-Frank Kaminsky pick-and-rolls and stall the offense, much like the Miami Heat did in last year’s playoffs. However, if Kaminsky is guarded by a center in this scenario, good luck to him at keeping up with the speedy Walker.
The sophomore has been more aggressive, though, when guarded by much smaller players after switches and will at least try to punish them with his size. The success of this varies, however, it isn’t as easy as it used to be for defenses where a team could just stick its point guard on Kaminsky for the majority of the game and suffer no consequences, something the Philadelphia 76ers wisely did with Kendall Marshall last season.
The power forward’s play in the post—a place where he can take the defender along for a spin-o-rama as well—has also seen a rise in efficiency and is up to a decent 0.91 points per possession, according to Synergy’s data at nba.com. Charlotte specifically runs an old Al Jefferson play for Frank Kaminsky from time-to-time where a double cross-screen leads to a post up touch.
Evidence does suggest that playing Kaminsky at the five hurts way more on defense than any supposed shortcomings he has as a power forward (Charlotte is scoring 108.6 points per 100 possessions with Kaminsky on the court, after all). Coach Steve Clifford has already toyed with it for 70 minutes after going to lineups with Kaminsky at center for a total of 59 minutes last season, per NBAwowy.com. As it could be predicted, they have hemorrhaged points and allowed a disastrous 129.7 per 100 possessions.
Having limited athletic ability and only armed with a 6-foot-11-inch wingspan, Kaminsky just can’t man the middle as the five. Ball handlers comfortably go at him off the dribble and finish over the top. Opponents have made 60.9 percent of their attempts at the rim against Frank Kaminsky, a mark which places him 78th out of the 81 players who face at least four such attempts per game.
The catch is that Kaminsky isn’t a particularly good defender as a 4, either. Though he possesses relatively decent quickness and can do some of the switching that the Hornets like to do, make him execute enough close outs and you can break him. It’s one thing to have modern small fours drive by you from the perimeter. The fact that Kaminsky can struggle with them is understandable. However, when you can’t keep the 36-year-old Luis Scola’s of the world in front of you, it’s a problem.
ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus has so far supported the notion that the Illinois native is a rather bad defensive player. As of today, Kaminsky is on track to have a second season as one of the 10 worst centers in the league in DRPM.
(A plea to ESPN and Basketball-Reference – Frank Kaminsky should really be listed as a power forward, while Spencer Hawes’s real spot is the center position. It places Kaminsky in a worse spot than he would be among power forwards, although a negative DRPM still is nothing to write home about.)
Thus at times, it’s the defensive end where Kaminsky not being able to do enough “big man things” at 7-feet hurts him the most.
Despite the solid tools and knack for the game he has, there just can be a certain unsuitability for him to play either front court position due to the reasons mentioned above.
Therefore, the third big man spot behind Cody Zeller and Marvin Williams is actually a good place for him. When the match-up’s right and there is a good hiding spot on defense or a need for his offensive play, coach Clifford can up his minutes or close out games with him (as he has done). Despite the shabby results, playing Kaminsky at the five definitely should be explored in fourth quarters or against teams that don’t offer much of penetration. His ability to shoot and put the ball on the floor is a premium for a center. In a similar vein, Clifford can rely more on his starters in games where the new age fours could cause Kaminsky problems.
With all three of Zeller, Williams and Kaminsky signed at least until 2018-19, the Hornets can slowly increase Kaminsky’s role behind the former two as Marvin Williams ages.
There’s certainly enough to his skillset that he can eventually become a starting level offensive player. This season has already proven that Kaminsky is still learning the NBA game and finding ways to be a better player.
We’ll see how far that will take him and whether it’s enough to not leave the Hornets pining for the path not taken.