No surprise here
By ZACH HEILPRIN
DALLAS, TEXAS - Frank Kaminsky's recent play is not a surprise. Oh, the efforts of the University of Wisconsin junior may be that to the national media and others that didn’t pay close attention to the Badgers this year. But those that did, especially his teammates, say they aren’t surprised by his rapid takeover of the nation’s consciousness. Nor is Kaminsky himself.
“I expected it from myself,” Kaminsky said this week as the second-seeded Badgers (30-7) prepared for their Final Four matchup with eighth-seeded Kentucky (28-10). “I don’t think a lot of people expected it from me. They didn’t really know. There were a lot of questions being asked about me before the season. I just tuned that out and had my own expectations for myself. I went out there and tried to fulfill them.”
And the 7-footer certainly has to this point. He went from averaging 4.2 points per game last year to 14.1 this season. He’s been great from behind the 3-point arc, where he’s shooting 37.8 percent and has crashed the boards, averaging 6.4 per game. There isn’t a part of his game that isn’t better this year than his sophomore season.
“Just working hard,” Kaminsky said of his improvement. “It's something I've always done. I knew that this year there would be an opportunity for me to go out there and play a lot of minutes, and I just wanted to do anything I could to be a big factor on this team. My teammates did a great job of always involving me in things and wanting the best for me. We all want the best for each other. So it's‑‑ I really can't explain it. It's just something more of an opportunity this year than in the past.”
Like most players at Wisconsin, Kaminsky had to wait his turn to see the court. He sat behind Jared Berggren during his first two years on campus – averaging 7.7 minutes per game as a freshman and 10.3 last year. But with Berggren graduating, along with two other members of the Badgers frontcourt, Kaminsky saw his chance.
“If I said coaching, would it get me any points,?” UW coach Bo Ryan joked of Kaminsky’s improvement. “He's just a tough young man who really wants to be a player, who has physically and mentally matured into what he feels he's comfortable with as far as his body and mind are concerned.
“He's learned how to be stronger. He's learned some nuances defensively of positioning and balance, all those things that you like to feel really every student‑athlete does. They improve when they're in school. He's improved in every phase of his game.”
Confidence is an important part of the game for Kaminsky, who earned All-Big Ten first-team honors from the coaches and media this season.
“I remember freshman year telling him stuff like that, and just to see him come out and play with the confidence,” classmate Traevon Jackson said. “He's always been there. It just didn't come out of nowhere. It's not a fluke or anything. He scored 40 at the beginning of the year. That just doesn't happen, like the guy can play. Nowadays, he's just doing it on a bigger stage, and it's just great to see.”
It was actually 43 points for Kaminsky in November against North Dakota – breaking the school record of 42 shared by Michael Finley (1994) and Ken Barnes (1965). A lot of his damage was done from beyond the arc in that game (6 of 6) but he also showed a new part of his arsenal – driving to the bucket off the dribble. He was able to rely on his skills from before his seven-inch growth spurt in high school, so if players wanted to try and close out on his 3-point attempts, he could make them pay with a pump-fake and drive. But the Lisle, Ill., native has also shown an adept ability once inside to use a variety of pivots and ball fakes to gain an advantage on his guy. Countless times on his way to earning West Region Most Outstanding Player, he appeared to have nowhere to go, only to pivot and fake until he found an opening.
“I think he’s just more mature from the standpoint of he understands patience in there,” assistant coach Greg Gard said. “He understands that he can get hit and he’s going to be OK. It’s not going to hurt that bad. And now he likes to be physical in there on both ends of the floor.”
It wasn’t always that way. When the Badgers were recruiting Kaminsky, Gard says they saw a guy with some skills on the outside but needed a lot of development inside.
“His understanding of the game was kind of guard oriented,” Gard said. “How he understood things from the outside looking in. Most big guys understand from the inside looking out. And if you get them on the outside they’re a little like a fish out of water but he understood, from the outside looking in, how to play and it was his inside looking out game that needed to be developed.”
And it has been. Against Arizona, Kaminsky scored 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, while doing a majority of his damage inside against NBA-type bodies like Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon.
“Even just throughout this year, from the beginning of the year until now, he's got a different mindset,” said junior Josh Gasser. “I think he's realized how good he is, and we all realized it, not only like this summer, but just the past summers, past years, how good he is, how talented he can be.”
He’s also not yelling at himself nearly as much as he used to. Previously, even before Ryan could get to him, Kaminsky would chastise himself for a defensive mistake or a missed read. But along with getting a year better physically, his mental maturity has also taken a step up. And if he needs a reminder, his teammates are there to help.
“He criticizes himself over some of the just most nonsense things,” Jackson said. “We try to tell him, like, Bro, just relax, like it's okay. Like get the next one.
“But since the beginning of the year … he's grown so much. He's matured mentally so much. I've always told him, Man, like you're great. Just believe it. I'm just so happy that he is really embracing it.”
Listen to Zach Heilprin every weekday on “The Jump Around” at ESPNWisconsin.com, and follow him on Twitter: @zachheilprin