HOUSTON — It may seem like the Warriors are leaning into their old age.
The core that distinguishes them are all in their mid-30s, and where they lack in speed or athleticism they make up for by outsmarting their opponents. Teammates call 35-year-old Steph Curry a cheat code and 38-year-old Chris Paul a cheat sheet.
The superstars may carry the load and set the standard, but it’s internally understood that the Warriors can reach new heights as title contenders if Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody take the “Year 3 Leap.” That not only means the third-year players making the “Non-Steph” parts of the game competitive, but challenging the regulars for crunch time minutes.
That “Year 3 Leap” is the idea that players in their third NBA season can solidify themselves as rotation mainstays if they’ve pocketed enough game experience to pair with their youth and athleticism. The Warriors can right their bench woes from last year if Moody and Kuminga make that leap flanking the older veteran core.
With Andrew Wiggins and Klay Thompson easing into the year, Kuminga and Moody, both 21, have jumped in their shoes on the wings. Kuminga even closed the Phoenix loss over Wiggins and both were playing key minutes down the stretch in Sacramento.
It’s early, but the Warriors have been waiting for this upward trend from their former first-rounders. Poor bench play was a main contributor to the Warriors’ road woes last year; a double-digit deficit would spiral them in minutes when Curry wasn’t on the floor to mop the mess.
Last year, the Warriors probably lose Friday night’s road game against the Sacramento Kings. They were down 11 early in the first half and outscored by 12 in the first and fourth quarters combined. But there was no desperate scramble to survive or costly mistakes — instead Moody and Kuminga helped lead a second unit surge, with Paul as the primary playmaker, to turn the deficit into a 20-point lead high.
“Last year it took us a long time to win a road game,” Curry said after his 41-point effort against the Kings. “And we used everybody to get (this one) done.”
Moody is playing himself into a regular rotation role as a constant shooter and scrappy defender. Turnovers and defensive lapses pushed him out of the rotation last year, only for coach Steve Kerr to pull him off the shelf to defend LeBron James in the Western Conference Semifinals.
His 18 minutes in the season opener against Phoenix changed the tenor of Golden State’s sluggish start. He was a plus-11 shooting 4-of-5 from the field, including a pair of 3-pointers, in 21 minutes against the Kings.
Moody has been on a shot-making kick for a while now. He’s shooting 53.6% from 3 in 18 games since February of last year, but has averaged 1.6 attempts in an average 11.2 minutes per game over that span. In these firs two games, Moody has gone 2-of-3 and 2-of-4, respectively, as he’s earned more minutes.
“He shot it really well in the playoffs,” Kerr said. “And I think that confidence carried over to the season. Not only in the games but in camp, too. So, I just believe that Moses is a really high-level shooter. We need that skill. He’s worked hard at it and he deserves playing time.”
Lacking size, the Warriors’ offense relies on a ton of scoring threats to open the floor, so having Moody as a reliable shooting option broadens the scoring options. Not only that, Moody’s defensive IQ has taken a jump. His six steals leads the team and he’s an aggressive rebounder, grabbing three per game in 19.5 minutes per game.
Kuminga’s strong preseason is translating to the regular season, too, where he’s earned a regular rotation spot and even minutes in closing lineups over a struggling Wiggins. Though he’s gotten into some foul trouble, he challenges opposing defenses at the rim and gets to the line.
He’s holding up his end of the bargain to crash the boards and he’s formed a tandem with Wiggins as the guy to defend the opposing team’s best player. He has 11 total rebounds in two games, averaging 23 minutes per game — on pace with leading rebounder Kevon Looney’s 23 total rebounds (11.5 per game) in 28 minutes per game.
Kuminga was a plus-9 with 12 points (5-of-11 from field) and five rebounds against the Kings.
Kerr has said the closing lineups are flexible, he’ll throw out the lineup that serves the hot hand. It’s a pivot from the Warriors’ typical standard of having a more consistent closing group on the floor. That flexibility in closing lineups, and throughout the game, looks to be giving the “Year 3 Leap” guys a leg to stand on. If that continues, the road trips and beyond may not be as dreadful as last year.