Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Jonathan Kuminga makes case for No. 1 high school player in the nation, talks future plans
By ADAM ZAGORIANORTH AUGUSTA, S.C. — Jonathan Kuminga may have come up short in his ultimate goal of leading the NY Rens to the Peach Jam championship this week, but he made a strong case that he is the best high school basketball player in the nation regardless of class.
The 6-foot-9, 218-pound wing from the Congo averaged 27.4 points and 6.0 rebounds in five games before the Rens fell to Mokan Elite, 81-70, in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
A Who’s Who of coaches including Kentucky’s John Calipari and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski watched as Kuminga dominated games on both ends of the court, draining 3-pointers, slashing to the rim and throwing down monster dunks on one end while shutting down players like Duke-bound Jalen Johnson on the defensive end. Kuminga scored 23 or more points in every pool play game, giving 34 to Team Final and 29 to Expressions Elite.
“I really have to put on a show,” Kuminga, ranked No. 1 in the Class of 2021 by 247Sports.com, told me Friday night after going for 34 points and 6 rebounds against Team Final. “It really feels amazing. We had a chance to go play semifinal, so this was our last chance to have a chance to go to the final.”
In an informal poll of college coaches, Kuminga and rising senior Cade Cunningham of the Texas Titans — who lost to Team Why Not in the quarters — were named the consensus best players at Peach Jam.
“[Kuminga] is the best player in the country,” one high-major Division 1 assistant told me. “I don’t think there’s any debate.”
Aaron Burt, the director of Team Final, said Kuminga should just go straight to the pros.
“It’s a waste of time, just let him play in the NBA,” Burt said after his team was crushed by Kuminga and the Rens Friday night.
Andy Borman, Kuminga’s coach with the Rens, isn’t the most unbiased person on the topic but the former Duke player knows talent.
“He’s the best player in the country regardless of class,” Borman said Friday night. “He’s 16 years old. So let’s give him a little time just because he plays a very mature game and his athleticism is very mature. He’s got a bright future ahead of him and the best thing about him is that he works his tail off, man. When we’re not practicing during the week, he’s up at 5 a.m. to do conditioning and overall sports performance to work on his body.” He’s put on 15 pounds of lean muscle in recent months.
“I’ve been working out every day,” Kuminga said. “That’s why I put a lot of muscle on.”
“And he works,” Borman added. “Not only is he shooting it better this year, he’s shooting with two guys on him.”
Wing D.J. Gordon of Team Final asked to guard Kuminga on Friday night because he’s a “competitor and I wanted to compete with him.”
“He’s a special talent,” Gordon said. “He’s young, he can dribble, he can shoot, he can do it all.”
Still, others preferred Cunningham, the 6-7 point guard from Montverde (FL) Academy who is coming off winning a gold medal with the USA U19 team in Greece. Cunningham averaged 21.3 points at Peach Jam after scoring just 6 against Why Not. He also averaged 8.0 assists and 7.8 rebounds.
ESPN recruiting director Paul Biancardi gave an informal nod to Cunningham as the top player at the event and said he was reorganizing is overall rankings for the top player regardless of class.
As for Kuminga, he began playing basketball when he was 2 in his native Congo.
“When I started growing up, basketball in the Congo wasn’t really like that,” he said. “People in the Congo didn’t really play basketball. Soccer is the first sport in the country.”
Kuminga’s older brother, Joel Ntambwe, who is four years older, came to the U.S. first. A 6-9 forward, he is now at Texas Tech after transferring from UNLV,
“My brother came here before,” Kuminga said. “My brother helped me just coming over here.”
Kuminga’s first language is French and his English is still developing.
“I had to keep pushing and learning,” he said. “That’s when I get better.”
Dikembe Mutombo, Bismack Biyombo, Serge Ibaka and Emmanuel Mudiay are all from the Congo, and Kuminga has met several of them, including Mudiay, who is listed as Ntambwe’s cousin on his UNLV bio.
“They watch some of my games, they just tell me to keep improving and working out,” Kuminga said. “Work on my weaknesses and everything will be good.”
Kuminga could reclassify to 2020 or potentially play overseas before entering the NBA Draft. It seems absurd that he would still be in high school at Our Savior New American for the 2020-21 season given how he’s dominating opponents right now.
“I’m not really thinking about that right now,” he said of possibly reclassing. “That’s not in my mind right now.”
Kuminga holds a Kentucky offer and Calipari and Kenny Payne were frequent fixtures at his games.
“I love Kentucky because that’s a good school,” Kuminga said. “It might be a good fit for me. That’s a good school, that’s why I love it. The coach is a good coach.”
Duke offered Kuminga several days after Peach Jam. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski and assistants Nate James and Jon Scheyer scouted Kuminga.
“I love everybody,” he said, speaking generally of his recruitment. “I consider everybody.”
Kuminga also has a relationship with current Nebraska and former St. John’s assistant Matt Abdelmassih. He frequently worked out at St. John’s when Abdelmassih was there. Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg and Abdelmassih watched Kuminga all week, too.
“I used to go to St. John’s pretty much every day because I used to work out there with my trainer,” he said. “When the gym is closed, we just go to St. John’s and just work out there.”
Meantime, his brother is now at Texas Tech and they are recruiting him, too.
“Yeah,” Kuminga said, “everybody is.”
Asked how it felt to have so much interest from elite colleges, Kuminga said, “That’s going to be my motivation to just keep working out, have my name everywhere.”
Photo: @D1 Circuit
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Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.