By the end of Frank Kaminsky’s freshman season at Wisconsin, he had fallen in love as much with eating Qdoba as with shooting jump shots. During his spare time, Kaminsky would venture to one of two Qdobas near his campus residence and order off the menu without much thought for the consequences on his body.
When Kaminsky took a season-ending body fat scan, he was shocked to learn that his body fat measured at 18 percent. He also weighed 245 pounds. It was at that time he sat down with strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach to make a plan to lose weight and get in shape.
“I was just eating anything,” Kaminsky once told me. “I’d been used to it. In high school, I could eat anything and not gain any weight. My body started to catch up with me. I started to realize that I needed to start taking eating healthier more seriously.”
Kaminsky told me he was mad at himself for allowing his body to get away from him as much as it did. He said his roommate, teammate Jordan Smith, was a health nut who helped keep his diet on track. Kaminsky took to eating vegetables, something he never would have done when he was younger.
“I hated broccoli,” Kaminsky said. “I like it now.”
Kaminsky returned for his sophomore season having dropped 15 pounds overall and 6 percent of his body fat. It would be another year before everyone saw him realize his potential. But those off-court habit changes represented the early stages of the most remarkable on-court transformation in Wisconsin basketball history.
On Thursday night, Kaminsky will be honored during a pregame ceremony by having his No. 44 jersey hung in the Kohl Center rafters before Wisconsin plays Purdue. As a freshman, he averaged a meager 1.8 points and 1.4 rebounds in 7.7 minutes per game. By the time he finished his senior season, he had become a dominant 7-footer who was just as adept at scoring inside as he was outside. Kaminsky averaged 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds, led Wisconsin to a National Championship Game appearance and earned consensus national Player of the Year honors.
“The path he came on from when he was a freshman to a sophomore to where he finished is unbelievable in terms of how he improved, how he grew,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said this week. “Obviously, he is a poster child in terms of a player putting in so much time and such a commitment to develop and make yourself into what he was and is.
“He wasn’t very good as a freshman. I didn’t know if he could play for us. And then he committed himself to a lot of work, a lot of time on his own. He changed his body, changed some of his habits, really committed himself to it and then also figured some things out. He grew into his body a little bit, too.”
That Kaminsky even earned a scholarship opportunity from Wisconsin was no guarantee. Badgers assistant coach Howard Moore watched the Illinois Wolves AAU program and recalled that he wanted center Nnanna Egwu instead of Kaminsky, who didn’t even consistently make the travel roster.
But Egwu chose Illinois, and Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan still needed a big man. That’s when Moore heard from Steve Pratt, the AAU coach of Badgers forward Duje Dukan, asking if he had seen Kaminsky play recently.
“I was like, ‘No, I don’t think he’s good enough,'” Moore said. “And he said, ‘No, you need to go take a look at him again. He’s really picked it up and is starting to do some things.'”
Moore watched a game as Kaminsky played point guard because his teammate, Northwestern commit Dave Sobolewski, was injured. Moore came away impressed. He returned to watch a supersectional championship game in the 2010 Illinois state playoffs, in which eventual state champion Simeon defeated Kaminsky’s Benet Academy team 58-50 in double overtime. Kaminsky recorded 15 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocks.
“After that, I was convinced,” Moore said. “I said, ‘You know what? I’ve got to tell Bo. We’ve got to get this kid on campus. We’ve got to offer him because if he keeps going in the direction he’s going, it’s going to be tough to get him.’
“I’ll be honest with you. I never saw national player of the year, Big Ten player of the year, Final Four runs. I didn’t see all of that. But at the same time, this kid is the epitome of under-promising and over-delivering with a recruit. It’s a great story.”
Kaminsky spent his first two seasons as a backup to starter Jared Berggren. But he seized control of a starting spot in his junior season and never relented. Kaminsky dropped a single-game school record 43 points on North Dakota in the fourth game of his junior season in what Gard termed a “public convincing moment.”
“Obviously the North Dakota game his junior year, I felt like Morpheus from The Matrix,” Moore said. “‘He’s starting to believe!’ I’m serious, man. I’m watching the game and I’m like, ‘Holy smokes. This kid’s starting to realize that he can play.'”
The rest, as they say, is history. Kaminsky earned West Region most outstanding player honors in the 2014 NCAA Tournament to help Ryan reach his first Final Four. He came back for his senior season and guided the Badgers to the title game. He did it with a style all his own, both on the court and off it.
He wore a GoPro vest strapped to his chest to chronicle his final year in college. He bought a dog and named her Khaleesi after his favorite Game of Thrones character. He starred in a YouTube dance battle to a Taylor Swift song. He celebrated made 3-pointers by pressing three fingers to his lips as an ode to Hunger Games character Katniss Everdeen.
His goofy, self-deprecating sense of humor made him a hit with media members, even as he lamented having to conduct interviews. He grew comfortable in his own skin and left a memorable impression on Wisconsin in every way.
Kaminsky, who became a first-round NBA draft pick of the Charlotte Hornets in 2015, will return Thursday to the place where his career began to blossom and earn a hero’s welcome. Moore describes Kaminsky as a “Halley’s Comet” for the infrequency with which a story like his comes along in the college game. He certainly proved to be a shooting star.
“He got tired of not being good enough,” Gard said. “He made a commitment to being great.”