Many NBA players are getting a surprise second act to finish out the 2019-20 season after they believed injuries had wrested away the end of the year. Many will impact the playoff picture, including Ben Simmons and Jonathan Isaac. Others’ stories are much more personal — the chance to breathe life into a career or get one last chance at winning.
From a Suns perspective, there are several such players, but chief among them is Frank Kaminsky, the former ninth overall pick who tried to fight through knee pain before ultimately sitting out 33 games heading into the NBA hiatus. Playing through what was eventually diagnosed as a stress fracture in his right patella clearly worsened the injury, but Kaminsky was able to recuperate during the hiatus and appears ready to contribute over eight games (and three scrimmages) in Orlando.
All in all, Kaminsky was exactly what the Suns hoped for
Last summer after the Suns signed Kaminsky, I wrote about how his 2018-19 season was not as bad as most thought. After the Hornets declined to give him a contract extension and banished him to the bench, Kaminsky re-entered the rotation after the All-Star break in 2019 and played decently. This season with the Suns, his production was pretty similar, except he was able to improve his play in a few key ways that helped him adapt to Monty Williams’ system.
Most importantly, Kaminsky improved as a play-maker, increasing his assist rate by nearly three percentage points while also cutting down on turnovers. Rather than simply looking to score at all times, Kaminsky facilitated from the elbow and kept the ball moving in Williams’ “point-five” offense.
“My biggest strength’s always been playing out on the perimeter and driving and cutting and creating mismatches and posting switches,” Kaminsky told me in December of how a featured, dynamic role in the offense helped him.
Kaminsky also remained around league-average as a three-point shooter despite taking more threes and less twos this year. Suns fans will remember many wide-open misses, but the numbers show Kaminsky was the epitome of an average high-volume stretch big man.
I’ve never thought Kaminsky’s defense was quite as bad as the numbers show, and altogether, his Defensive Box Plus-Minus, which estimates a player’s impact on opponent scoring per 100 possessions, was the best since his rookie year. At the very least, as a backup big man, Kaminsky can get in the way of opposing players driving to the basket without fouling.
“I’m never going to be this elite, athletic rim protector that people talk about,” Kaminsky told me last year, “but I know that if I can scout defenses and take them out of their schemes and I’m also physically capable of moving my feet, staying in front of people and being a good defender, it’s really going to help our team.”
No coach has ever been able to stick Kaminsky in a consistent role
Part of why I believe Kaminsky looked better offensively to close the 2018-19 season and start the 2019-20 season was because he knew his place on the depth chart. Across two seasons with Charlotte and Phoenix, Kaminsky knew his job was to come in, bomb from deep, and convert inside when the ball landed in his lap. He is skilled and experienced enough to do that, which is why these were some of the best months of his pro career.
Outside of 2018-19, Kaminsky has started at least three games and no more than 16 in every year of his career. This season with the Suns fit the mold.
Once Deandre Ayton was suspended, and later when Aron Baynes struggled with injuries, Kaminsky again found himself pinging between the starting lineup and the bench as well as playing both the 4 and 5. Kaminsky is easily shaken on the court, and it’s not hard to imagine that lack of role clarity hurt him, too.
While Kaminsky admitted during the season that he knew he’d be leaving Charlotte after they declined even to extend a qualifying offer and make him a restricted free agent, it couldn’t have helped his confidence. Being unwanted sucks. When the Suns grabbed him off the scrap heap for a solid mid-level exception salary, it surprised many, but they envisioned a bench scoring role for him that suited him well.
I see Kaminsky as a backup center, which is not ideal for the Suns considering they have three of those in Kaminsky, Baynes and Dario Saric. Divvying up the minutes so that each of those three players is in a position to succeed will be important in Orlando, even as the Suns aim to keep playing small as well. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see one of those three veteran backups log some DNPs. Will that be Kaminsky?
What comes next in the saga of Kaminsky?
The Suns can move away from all three of their non-Ayton big men this summer if they’d like. None had a particularly great season, but remember, they did go out of their way to acquire all three. Even if the fit never made sense, even if their roles were constantly changing, the Suns liked all three players. Even the Charlotte castoff Kaminsky.
In Orlando, Kaminsky will effectively be playing for his $5.7 million option for 2020-21 as well as another guaranteed NBA season. That makes him likely the cheapest option of the three, with Saric expected to hit restricted free agency and command starter-level money and with Baynes among the best centers on the market this offseason. Kaminsky is also just one year older than Saric, and he should be entering his prime.
Most of this will come down to what happens in Orlando. Who fits into Williams’ system the best? Who can make the most of a bizarre situation in just eight games, most likely all without Kelly Oubre Jr.? Who complements Ayton best?
It would be easy to look at the dazzling class of available 4s in free agency this offseason and assume that cutting Kaminsky is a given. But as it’s always been for Kaminsky, nothing is set in stone.