The favorite for this year’s National Player of the Year seemed oblivious to the spotlight.
Minutes after Wisconsin knocked off Michigan in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals, a game in which he posted an almost accidental double-double and pushed his team one step closer to its lofty goals, the future NBA first-round draft pick bowed his head to examine the boxscore put in front of him. He tucked in his knees and let his shoulders slump toward the dais, a great body folded over itself.
When Frank Kaminsky peered up, he saw the college basketball world — its media, its fans, and any prospective opponents — peering in.
“All this attention, to him, he doesn’t really like it much,” Badgers teammate Josh Gasser said. “But he takes it with a grain of salt.”
The root of the hype is no mystery. Kaminsky is the best player on the best offensive team in the nation — one that just earned its first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament and hopes to build on Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles with a push for another, greater title that begins Friday. The Wisconsin 7-footer is the only major conference player to lead his team in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals, and he managed to do that while shooting an efficient 55.6 percent from the field, and 39.5 percent from three-point range.
But Kaminsky, who couldn’t swagger if he tried, is not your average superstar.
Four years ago, Gasser saw a “goofy, big, and a little bit uncoordinated” freshman walk into the locker room.
Throughout Kaminsky’s high school career in Lisle, Ill., that’s what others outside of his home state — he had offers from Bradley, DePaul, Northern Illinois, Southern Illinois and Northwestern — had seen, too. With the exception of Bo Ryan, that is.
The Wisconsin coach saw a lanky frame without any of the muscle or power that would transform Kaminsky into the player he is today. But he also saw soft hands, good footwork and a quickness that bellied the big man’s hulking stature.
“He saw a lot of different things in me that maybe I didn’t even see in myself,” Kaminsky said. “He expected a lot from me from the beginning.”
Playing behind Jared Berggren his first two seasons, Kaminsky’s role was simply a spot big man with a nice outside touch. He averaged 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds a game as a freshman, numbers that only ticked up slightly in his sophomore year.
Ryan saw the hunger behind it. “It’s just kind of neat to work with young men that don’t have all the answers when they come in and really … strive to get better,” he said.
Then came Kaminsky’s breakout junior season, which signaled its arrival with a 43-point game against North Dakota in November 2013. He would land on the All-Big Ten team and suddenly everything was different.
It’s hard to imagine much higher expectations than the ones heaped upon Kaminsky at the start of this season, but even so, he’s managed so far to surpass them once again. He is averaging 18.2 points and 8.0 rebounds after dominating the rocky Big Ten.
Kaminsky still has the outside touch, the quickness, the brooding brown eyes and gentle giant demeanor. But now he’s added devastating post moves and physicality to his game, making him a matchup nightmare. Just as deadly, Michigan coach John Beilein pointed out, is his keen eye, his ability to find a teammate in the right moment.
After a victory over the Gophers earlier this month — a game in which Kaminsky followed up a 31-point performance vs. Michigan State with a 25-point outburst at Williams Arena — Ryan was asked whether he believed Kaminsky is finding a new level.
“There’s no ceiling we’re putting on him,” his coach said, later adding, “Where some guys maybe get to a point where they plateau, Frank is still getting better.
“He’s getting better every game.”
To the outside world, Kaminsky’s journey to the top has been longer than most. So often, elite talent is determined early, much earlier than we saw in his case. To Kaminsky, the journey hasn’t been long enough.
The NBA and a multimillion-dollar contract lie just ahead. But the reluctant Midwestern superstar sounds genuine when he peers up at the college basketball world and regrets leaving his corner of it.
“I love playing here, I love our fans, I love having my family around all the time,” Kaminsky said of Wisconsin. “If I had another year of eligibility, I think I’d use it.”