Crazily, Kaminsky has become face of Badgers, tournament

Badgers star Frank Kaminsky reacts as fans sing him happy birthday during practice before the Final Four in the NCAA tournament at AT&T Stadium.  

Robert Deutsch/Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

ARLINGTON, Texas — The only word Frank Kaminsky can muster that adequately describes the past week of his life is "crazy," which barely seems to do justice to his rise to near rock-star status.

Owning the paint against Baylor’s 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin with 19 points and six blocks in the Sweet 16? Crazy.

Dominating Arizona’s future NBA frontcourt with 28 points and 11 rebounds in the Elite Eight? Crazy.

Being named the NCAA tournament’s West Region Most Outstanding Player? Crazy.

Crazy. Crazy. Crazy.

"To say the least," Kaminsky said Friday, one day before his Wisconsin team (30-7) plays Kentucky (28-10) in the Final Four. "I’ve got people calling my friends back home, talking to my dad and my old high school. It’s just been kind of crazy to see all the stories that have surfaced about me when I was younger. Maybe some that I didn’t want people to find out about. It’s nice to have all this attention, but at the same time, it has been crazy."

So has Kaminsky’s ascension into the national consciousness.

A little over one week ago, Kaminsky, a 7-foot center from Lisle, Ill., was just another face in the 68-team field that is March Madness. Now, he is arguably the face of the tournament, proof of how a spectacular string of games can change someone’s public profile.

Students and fans can’t stop congratulating him on campus. National media outlets want to tell his story. And NBA draft gurus suddenly are re-evaluating his game tape with added interest.

The attention is enough to make the heads of Kaminsky and those family members closest to him absolutely spin.

"Other people are just being exposed now to what Frankie has the capabilities of doing," his father, Frank Kaminsky Jr., said by phone this week. "Instead of the games being local, now they’re all over the place. And I think people are getting to see his talents now. You know, he’s hot right now. He’s had a couple good games. To me, it’s like a dream. Sometimes I sit there in the stands, and I can’t even believe what I’m watching."

What he’s watched is one of the breakout performances of the NCAA tournament. Through four tournament games, Kaminsky is averaging 18.5 points and 6.0 rebounds. His 28-point, 11-rebound effort in an overtime victory against Arizona was his second career double-double. And among teams that have played four tournament games, only two have players — UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Michigan State’s Adreian Payne — that averaged more points.

"I’m very happy for him, very proud of him," Badgers forward Sam Dekker said. "He’s been leading us throughout this run here as of late. It’s been fun. Against Arizona, we just hopped on his back and went."

One of the running narratives this week as Wisconsin prepares for the Final Four is that Kaminsky exploded onto the college basketball scene from out of nowhere. But that description is not fair, nor is it accurate.

Kaminsky, after all, earned first-team all-state honors his senior year of high school from the Chicago Sun-Times and the Illinois Basketball Coaches Association in 2011. This season as a college junior, he scored a program record 43 points against North Dakota and was named to the All-Big Ten first team.

Through it all, he never sought the spotlight, which is a trait his father saw in him years ago. He would prefer not doing interviews with the media, even though his blunt nature makes him one of the more entertaining quotes on the team. Perhaps, then, his humility has helped to keep him under the national radar. At least, until now.

"That’s how he was raised," his dad said. "That’s what I always believed and that’s what I instilled in all three of my children. I think the highlight of that 43-point night was that he appreciated his teammates’ support in wanting him to get that when he got so close. He was more happy they won the game than he got 43 points. I’d be disappointed in him if he thought anything else."

The root of Kaminsky’s basketball success stems from his incredible versatility. He has developed a deft shooting touch that pulls big men out on the perimeter. And he can create mismatches inside because he now possesses the strength and confidence to score with a series of post moves. In other words, he is too quick for most centers and too strong for most forwards or guards, a player who hits 37.8 percent of his 3s and 58.2 percent of his 2-point attempts.

His high school coach, Gene Heidkamp, likes to tell the story about the five-game stretch in which Kaminsky served as the team’s point guard during his senior year. When Kaminsky’s teammate, future Northwestern point guard Dave Sobolewski, sustained an injury, Benet Academy’s biggest player brought the ball up court.

Heidkamp said the team did not make Kaminsky the point guard as a novelty act. He did so because it gave the team the best chance to win. Benet Academy won all five games.

"Offensively, he does so many good things," Heidkamp said. "How many big guys do you see that can handle the ball 25 feet from the basket? Even just move it to the next open man, as silly as that sounds. He’s a pressure release anywhere on the floor.

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"I think he’s got a natural basketball IQ. He’s been around the game for a long time. Sometimes, people don’t realize he’s got a guard mentality in a big man’s body, as far as understanding how to play."

This season, Kaminsky has put his full talents on display in a starting role, which has boosted his confidence immensely. He spent his first two years in Wisconsin’s program as a backup to center Jared Berggren, the school’s all-time blocked shots leader. But Kaminsky went from playing 10.3 minutes and averaging 4.2 points last year to playing 27.0 minutes and averaging 14.1 points this year.

"Frank is in that comfort zone now," his dad said. "He’s gotten through that. It’s just mind-boggling. He’s doing what I knew he could do. But did I ever think he’d be this dang good? No. I don’t think so."

Given his recent run of success, talk has begun to shift to Kaminsky’s future. A 7-footer with his skill set no doubt will make NBA scouts salivate. Kaminsky is not listed on most mock drafts for 2014 because he wasn’t considered a viable prospect even earlier in the season. DraftExpress.com lists him as the No. 22 overall prospect in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Kaminsky insists he wants nothing to do with talk of the NBA right now.

"I’m not paying attention to any of that," he said Friday.

His father, however, realizes what his son’s play could mean for the future. He said the two shared a lengthy conversation about the NBA six weeks ago, after Kaminsky’s grandfather passed away.

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"What we agreed was that there will be no conversation about that until we win the national championship," his dad said. "And then he and I will sit down with his mom and uncle, who was involved in the NBA for years, and some other close friends.

"And what we’re going to do at that point is do some research and present Frankie with the plusses and the minuses. He’s got to make a decision based on facts. Whatever he decides to do, whether he decides to go or stay, as his dad, I’ve got his back covered.

"We’ll see how that all plays out. But right now, from Frankie to the rest of the kids on the team to the parents and all the Badger fans, there only should be tunnel vision right now. We’ve gotten this far. Like Frank said, we’re not done with our job yet. We’ve got two more to win. So let’s go get this."

Before the games began, Kaminsky officially celebrated his 21st birthday on Friday. Wisconsin fans even serenaded him with the "Happy Birthday" song while he took the court for the team’s open practice at AT&T Stadium.

"It’s weird being here for my birthday," Kaminsky said. "I never envisioned my birthday would fall on a Final Four weekend. I tried to stay up for my birthday last night. It didn’t really work out. I found myself falling asleep. To have my family in, down here, it’s always nice to kind of celebrate with them."

Two more sparkling performances this weekend, and the celebration of Kaminsky’s life and basketball talents surely will be, well, crazy.

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