MADISON — Taylor Currie was a middle-school student — and a long way from a Division I scholarship — when he became enamored with Frank Kaminsky.
It was the spring of 2015, and the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team was finishing off its back-to-back runs to the Final Four. Led by Kaminsky, the consensus national player of the year, the Badgers upset previously unbeaten Kentucky in the national semifinal before falling to Duke in the title game.
At the center of that magical time in program history was a 7-foot senior goofball who will have his No. 44 jersey raised to the rafters at the Kohl Center during a ceremony on Thursday night.
Not only did Kaminsky’s rags-to-riches story captivate the Wisconsin fan base, he became a household name on the national level. And little did Kaminsky know it, but he also was serving as a source of inspiration for a 14-year-old from Michigan who, years later, would sign a national letter of intent with the Badgers.
“Yeah, they were good, but you’d look at (the Badgers) out on the floor against Kentucky and you thought, ‘Hey, they’re not going to beat these guys,’ ” said Currie, a 6-foot-9 center who will be a freshman at Wisconsin in 2018-19. “And then you see Frank playing and you’re like, ‘Man, this guy can play.’ There’s a big guy who had been in college for four years, he wasn’t a one-and-done, he wasn’t a five-star player. No, he stuck with the process and he had been there four years and he was just dominating.”
That’s not to say Currie expects to be the next Kaminsky, or that the Wisconsin coaches even remotely hinted at that possibility during the recruiting process. As former Badgers coach Bo Ryan pointed out, “you only get a guy like that every decade or two, really, that comes that far.”
Ryan had plenty of other big men who made steep climbs on the developmental ladder over the course of their careers. Kaminsky sat behind one of those guys, averaging 1.8 points as a freshman and 4.2 points as a sophomore as Jared Berggren’s backup.
From there, Kaminsky “just took it to a level that you’ve never seen before,” Badgers assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said. After earning first-team All-Big Ten honors while averaging 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds as a junior, Kaminsky produced 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game as a senior to become Big Ten Player of the Year while sweeping the Wooden Award, Naismith Trophy and Oscar Robertson Trophy honors.
By the time his Wisconsin career was over, Kaminsky had raised the bar for the next generation of big men at Wisconsin.
“He’s like a poster child for young developmental bigs,” Krabbenhoft said. “We’re lucky we had Frank to put us on the map for some of those big guys as far as the exposure he gave us.”
Wisconsin coach Greg Gard and his staff don’t have to initiate conversations about Kaminsky on the recruiting trail very often.
“Kids bring him up,” Gard said. “They know. We don’t have to do a lot of educating with that. When they hear ‘Wisconsin,’ they know right away, Frank the Tank.”
That’s how it went with Currie, who had seen the end product during March Madness but wanted to know more about the process of how Kaminsky reached that point.
Gard was happy to share the entire story with Currie and his family. The main point was this: The Frank Kaminsky that left campus was much different than the Frank Kaminsky who arrived four years earlier and struggled to get on the floor during his first two seasons.
“When we talk about Frank, it’s really, ‘When you work and do the things you’re supposed to do, anything can happen,’ ” said Howard Moore, who recruited Kaminsky out of the Chicago area during his first stint as an assistant coach with the Badgers. “We’re not saying that we’re going to get you to the NBA, we didn’t even have that conversation with Frank. His conversation was, ‘Cat, by your junior year, I hope we can get you on the court.’ And that’s the humbleness about his story that’s so great.”
During a 20-minute phone conversation last week, Ryan was quick to point out that Kaminsky deserved most of the praise developing into the ninth pick in the 2015 NBA draft.
Gard echoed that sentiment a few days later following a Wisconsin practice.
“The credit, whenever there’s development, sometimes it’s given too much to coaches,” Gard said. “The players have the biggest ownership in that. And that’s where with Frank, he’s responsible and gets the credit for the jump that’s taken, because he obviously put a lot of time into it.
“Some of it was a physical maturation that took place and those things where the body caught up with what the mind wanted to do. But he put a lot of time into it. Obviously, the coaches have their share in it, but a lot of that ownership is placed on what they do in the offseason, what they do when we’re not around. We only have them for ‘x’ amount of hours and it takes a lot more than the time we can spend with them.”
The next player in line after Kaminsky was Ethan Happ, who had huge shoes to fill.
One big advantage Happ had, he admits, is getting to spend an entire season going up against Kaminsky in practice. Happ redshirted during Kaminsky’s senior season in 2014-15.
“Frank, he did a great job in practice not so much telling me you should do this or do that,” Happ said, “it was more he would just do it to me and if I ever had questions he was always open to answer them.”
While Happ has been excellent in his three seasons playing for the Badgers — he was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2015-16 and earned first-team all-conference honors as a sophomore — UW is still waiting for the big men who arrived in the 2015 recruiting class to make an impact.
Junior forwards Alex Illikainen, Andy Van Vliet and Charlie Thomas are all in Year 3 in the program, yet none of the three are starting and all were passed by early in the season by freshman forward Nate Reuvers.
Reuvers said recently he doesn’t feel any pressure to live up to the standard set by Kaminsky. Even the guy who raised the bar for development at Wisconsin doesn’t believe the next generation of big men should be expected to follow his unique path.
“Here’s the thing: Everybody’s different. Every player is going to be different,” said Kaminsky, who’s in his third season with the Charlotte Hornets. “The things that I can do and things that I did while I was there are going to be different from, say, Ethan. We’re different players, we do different things.
“You can’t really compare what I did to what other people are capable of doing. Ethan could definitely be the kind of player that I was for the school, but he’d have to do it in his own different kind of way. It won’t be the same.”
Kaminsky also admits he was fortunate to be surrounded by talented, experienced teammates. The 2015 national runner-up team included fellow NBA first-rounder Sam Dekker; four current G-League players in Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig, Duje Dukan and Vitto Brown; and senior guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, the program’s all-time leader in minutes.
“You know, I’m lucky,” Kaminsky said. “I had such a great supporting cast and supporting team. … It’s got to come from everybody being on the same page and everybody buying into the same thing. Because if I had teammates that were guys who wanted to do their own thing and guys who didn’t buy into the cultural aspect of what we were doing, I probably wouldn’t have ended up where I am.”