Frank Kaminsky isn’t a finished product, but the Suns made an investment in the 26-year-old stretch big man with the hope that he would improve during his second contract.
Quickly after the start of free agency, Charlotte renounced their cap hold for Kaminsky, making him an unrestricted free agent and ending their relationship with the player for whom they reportedly turned down an offer of four first-round picks to select on draft night in 2015.
The Suns swooped in shortly after his release to lock Kaminsky in on a deal that will pay him $4.77 million this season. The expectation is he will get plenty of opportunity this year to prove there is more to his game than what he was able to show in Charlotte, as both a backup 4 and 5 in the Suns’ frontcourt.
Many players who have shown more two-way upside were signed to similar contracts this summer, such as Noah Vonleh and Ed Davis. The Suns, though, chose Kaminsky before many of those players were off the board, showing they value the obvious fit he has within their new-look roster.
Last year, Kaminsky served primarily as the Hornets’ backup center, and his efficiency went to another level. For the first time in his career, Kaminsky settled into a pure stretch big man role. Nearly half his shots came from three-point range as he traded inefficient flips and hooks from the post for spot-up threes. As a result, Kaminsky’s true shooting percentage jumped four percentage points to .587, the highest of his career.
To be fair, Charlotte likely noticed this growth as well. Still, they moved on and targeted forward P.J. Washington in the draft, while still having to pay Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo more than $45 million next year. Kaminsky wasn’t bad as a Hornet, but the next stage of his development will come in Phoenix. (Side note: Giving a guy like Kaminsky a fresh start over an unproven, raw athlete is something the last Suns regime never would have done).
The additions of Ricky Rubio, Cameron Johnson and Ty Jerome filled out the Suns roster with solid pick-and-roll players. We didn’t necessarily know how new coach Monty Williams would construct the offense when he was hired, but we can assume it will feature a heavy dose of simple pick-and-roll with shooters spacing the floor.
That’s where Kaminsky comes in, as a capable catch-and-shoot guy on the weak side of a pick-and-roll. As long as he’s open that is. The Wisconsin product is just 1-for-20 over the first four seasons of his career on contested threes, per NBA.com. Defenses know Kaminsky is not the most versatile shooter in the league, so they don’t have to dedicate elite defenders to chase him off screens. One way Kaminsky can make the defense pay for leaving him open is to improve attacking those closeouts.
Last year also marked the greatest efficiency at the rim of Kaminsky’s career at 65 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass. He has decent touch around the basket if he can create space for himself, but he is streaky. Bigger, athletic wings like Rudy Gay and Lance Thomas who can match Kaminsky’s foot speed often force him into contested shots. But as he grew his game out to the perimeter, Kaminsky’s shot creation resulted from straight-line drives rather than post moves.
Those drives are still a work in progress. Developing Kaminsky’s ball-handling will be a key task of the staff in Phoenix as they try to bring more out of him during his physical prime. Opponents who bring help to pressure the ball can force Kaminsky into mistakes. And athletic big men who can match Kaminsky step for step deny the driving lane completely, leaving him in no man’s land having picked up his dribble.
Yet every so often, Kaminsky will bust out a confident series of moves that would convince you he’s a multi-time All-Star. That quiet upside as a scorer has to be something the Suns saw when they evaluated him heading into free agency.
In the first clip below, Domantas Sabonis flies in with the intention of contesting Kaminsky’s high, quick release. Kaminsky darts under Sabonis’ outstretched arms as the Pacers big man falls onto his heels and is left in the dust. A series of dribble moves and ball fakes in the second clip allows Kaminsky to get past Anthony Davis on his way to the rim, a remarkable feat for any NBA player, and definitely not one you’d expect from Kaminsky.
Foot speed and the threat of that quick shot release are Kaminsky’s two best weapons. He is also not afraid to take deep threes, and pulling defenders even further past the arc will open more space for the Suns’ best offensive players. Strong screening completes Kaminsky’s package as a pick-and-pop scorer.
Don’t be surprised if that’s a big part of the Suns’ second unit offense. Involving Kaminsky in those sets on the perimeter could allow the Suns to take advantage of Aron Baynes’ offensive rebounding or even station Baynes in the corner to maximize spacing.
The Suns built this roster in a way that will leave a capable offensive shepherd on the court at all times. Rubio and backup Tyler Johnson are both capable pick-and-roll playmakers. Kaminsky improved greatly as a catch-and-shoot sniper in his final two seasons in Charlotte, and defenses have to respect his ability.
Finding teammates more consistently and being able to keep his dribble in tight quarters will both elevate Kaminsky’s game. Kaminsky is no more than an average passer. A good screener and a smart offensive player, he works fine as a ball-mover, but he’s far from an offensive hub. Getting consistent playing time and playing with superior top-to-bottom offensive talent compared with what he worked with in Charlotte should bring better balance to Kaminsky’s offensive style.
But it remains to be seen if the Suns will be able to defend well enough as a group to lift albatrosses like Kaminsky and some of the other youngsters. Surely Baynes, Rubio and Mikal Bridges can make up for the youngsters’ mistakes, but that only goes so far.
Kaminsky is best defensively as a center, making his fit with Baynes a challenge. This is because Kaminsky’s below-average wingspan and athleticism make it extremely difficult to cover ground or be very impactful as a help defender. More realistically, his best path to providing defensive value is becoming a better roadblock for driving ball-handlers.
Steve Clifford’s wizardry turned a back line of Kaminsky and Al Jefferson into the eighth-best defense in the NBA in 2015-16, but Kaminsky hasn’t posted a positive defensive box plus-minus since that season. Last year, Kaminsky was in the negative by the BBall Index’s defensive player impact plus-minus -- another stat that attempts to estimate a player’s impact on his team’s defense -- just behind guys like De’Andre Jordan and Richaun Holmes. There’s a clear ceiling on what a ground-bound player like Kaminsky can do on defense, but if he can at least be a net neutral, his growing offensive game will be even more impactful.
Fortunately, Kaminsky is experienced playing the type of conservative defense Phoenix will likely play under Williams. Under James Borrego, the Hornets’ focus was forcing mid-range jumpers. About 28 percent of opponents’ shots came from that area of the court, per Cleaning the Glass, the third-highest rate in the NBA. Kaminsky was effective dropping deep into the pain, standing his ground and discouraging drives, but any guard who was willing to take the plunge found very little resistance at the rim.
Kaminsky was often late to react and lacks the pure speed and mobility to keep up with playmakers who have a head of steam. He blocked just 31 shots over 2,590 minutes the past two seasons. Stationing Kaminsky closer to the rim could improve his effectiveness in this area, and we have seen Baynes (and Deandre Ayton) defend scoring forwards in the past, including Giannis Antetokounmpo. The way Williams and his staff construct responsibilities defensively to help Kaminsky will be interesting.
While the Summer Suns were battling to fill out the bottom of the Suns roster as well as their G League outfit, Kaminsky was with his new teammates courtside. Williams has mentioned him as a part of the team’s core. With the numerous ways Kaminsky can improve as a player, he is as much a part of this project as anyone.