Since Frank Kaminsky began playing at Wisconsin 2.5 years ago, my friends and I have had a running joke that he would fit in seamlessly running in the famous Milwaukee Brewers sausage race. We meant this endearingly; he was the latest in a long line of tall and gangly and white Badger basketball players, except taller, ganglier, and whiter. He’s also developed into a much more potent offensive force than his predecessors, and it’s pretty apparent that’s the foremost reason that Wisconsin exorcised their tournament demons and reached the Final Four.
Kaminsky has really come into his own this season, which bears some resemblance to the leap he made in his junior year of high school. It’s been well-documented that he grew seven inches — from 6’3 to 6’10 — in two years, and had some of the growing pains that a lot of us experienced at that point in our lives. “It was like most young teenagers,” his AAU Illinois Wolves coach Mike Mullins recalls. “It takes time for it all to come together. Sometimes there’s a little awkwardness, and Frank had to deal with that. It was just a matter of patience more than anything else. The major positive thing is that he was able to bring guard skills into a 7-footer’s body as he grew and finally became comfortable with it.”
The summer between Kaminsky’s sophomore and junior years, Coach Mullins left him off the travel squad for a tournament. “He was upset like any player would be,” the coach says. “I think it’s a credit to Frank and his parents that he took it as motivation, and not as a snub, and we tried to explain that to him. At that point, he wasn’t ready to assume a major role as he was shortly thereafter.”
Mullins stresses that the team played small, often using line-ups of three or four guards, and that it also included seven other future NCAA Division I players — Nnanna Egwu and Tracy Abrams (both Illinois), Dave Sobolewski (Northwestern), Chasson Randle (Stanford), and Adonis Filer (Clemson), as well as Joe Crisman (Loyola-Chicago) and Will Sullivan (Miami-Ohio).
While his Benet Academy high school coach Gene Heidkamp doesn’t think that the disappointment of the snub necessarily bred a bitter “chip on his shoulder,” Benet teammate and close friend (and future Marquette player) Dylan Flood believes it fueled him. “He was definitely really upset about it,” Flood says. “He made it his mission to travel the next time.”
According to Flood, their tandem workouts became more frequent, and Kaminsky grew stronger. His game would follow his dedicated body development. “Halfway through the season, he started doing really, really, really well,” Flood says. “If I remember correctly, his breakout game was against Oswego, and they were a really good team. He had like nine points in the fourth quarter and brought us back and we ended up winning that game. From there on out, he performed like an all-state center.”
(The next year, after Kaminsky had committed to Wisconsin, Benet would win a huge game against Chicago’s Simeon, the state’s no. 1-ranked team that featured then-sophomore Jabari Parker. In front of over 8,000 fans, Kaminsky’s team consummated a 58-54 victory as the big man contributed 19 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and five blocks.)
His comparatively late development meant that he hadn’t been a previously touted recruit; he was a three-star prospect on both Rivals and Scout. His other scholarship offers were from Northwestern, DePaul, Bradley, and Northern Illinois. It’s baffling now that someone with his size and shooting skills was not more coveted, just as it would be baffling a year from now if he’s a projected first-round draft pick who went largely unnoticed nationally until about a week or two ago. Of all the major sports, basketball scouting is supposed to be more predictable than that.
Nevertheless, Coach Heidkamp feels like Kaminsky would’ve garnered a whole lot more attention if he’d drawn the process out more. Given that he emerged late in his junior season, and swiftly committed to Wisconsin in June of that year, there really wasn’t much time for a sweepstakes to blossom. “We never really had the chance to see where he would’ve gone,” the coach says. “But I think the interest level would’ve been very, very high if he didn’t commit so early. He was a late bloomer and an early commit.”
For his part, Bo Ryan seemed unwaveringly excited with the coup. “Frank’s development has sky-rocketed over the past six months. He went from having a hard time getting on the floor in AAU the summer before his junior year, to having a large contingent of suitors by the following spring,” he wrote in a statement. “He’s long, skilled and has a knack for finding the basket … Our staff is really excited about what the future could hold as Frank continues to grow and develop … Badger fans will enjoy watching him mature in Cardinal and White.”
Last week, Kaminsky quipped that Arizona would characterize the Badgers as “white guys” if they were asked to describe their Elite Eight opponents in 1-2 words. His self-deprecating sense of humor has been a constant amidst his ascent. From high school, Flood remembers him laughing off repeated instances of bumping his head on the top of doorways before adjusting to his new body, joking about his inability to dunk when he was well over six feet tall, and referring to his bench-warming self as a one-man “goon squad”.
This past November, Frank Kaminsky dropped 43 on North Dakota. Entering the night, he had averaged 3.2 points per game in just over two years at Wisconsin. He celebrated by mimicking Wilt Chamberlain:
To be honest, this was the first time Badgers fans ever had any inkling that he’d become the player he’s been in this tournament. We never could have fathomed that he’d drop 28 and 10 and be the best player on the floor in a game that featured presumptive lottery pick Aaron Gordon, or that the only reasonable response to Arizona coach Sean Miller’s assertion that he’s “the reason Wisconsin’s in the Final Four” would be, “Well, yeah, duh.”
Previously, it felt like his ceiling would be as the prototypical Wisconsin big man along the lines of former players like Brian Butch, Greg Stiemsma, Jason Chappell, Keaton Nankivil, and Jared Berggren. These were good college basketball players — all five are playing professionally in some capacity now, and Stiemsma has even improved to the point where he has a guaranteed NBA contract — but none was exactly capable of being the focal point on a Final Four run.
Of course, Kaminsky didn’t do this all by himself — fellow starters Sam Dekker, Ben Brust, Josh Gasser, and Traevon Jackson can all shoot with range and score inside. Reserves Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig are probably better scorers than the players that start in front of them. Top to bottom, this may be the best-suited team Bo Ryan’s ever had to work with in executing his swing offense (defensively, there’ve certainly been better, but the trade-off is worth it if only for the aesthetics of watching the games).
Nevertheless, you won’t find too many Badgers fans at this point who aren’t hoping for a heavily-weighted dose of Frank Kaminsky on Saturday against Kentucky. Just as we irrationally want Aaron Rodgers to pass on literally every single play, a lot of us would sign up right now for a game plan that calls for pounding it down low to The Tank on 100% of the possessions (perhaps he could occasionally kick it out for open three’s when he’s double-teamed). The Wildcats are obviously supremely more athletic, but Kaminsky’s emergence gives us hope that we might have the better basketball team right now.