Kings Lead

What’s in Store for the Kings this Season?

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Kings fans have obviously endured a lot of frustration and flat out heartbreak over the years. Despite 12 straight (and counting) losing seasons, and a perplexing front office and ownership, there are reasons for optimism if you’re the Kings coming into this season. Here we will highlight players and lineups to be excited for if you’re a Kings fan, and some growth that will be essential for this team moving forward.

A Quick Review of 2017-18

Last season, the Kings were 28th in offensive rating, 29th in defensive rating, and dead last in pace. Starting George Hill (have we figured out if Hill actually did anything as a King last season?) and a 36-year-old Zach Randolph for a good portion of the season did not help. I wake up in cold sweats picturing Hill passing up countless open shots, while Z-Bo won’t rest until he jab-steps the entire paint. No wonder the Kings ranked 30th in Zach Lowe‘s new League Pass rankings. These were misguided attempts to compete in the lonesome crowded West last season. When – to the surprise of nobody but the Kings organization – that didn’t work? Head Coach Dave Joerger made fans’ heads spin with how often he juggled his rotation. Not even a single player averaged 30 minutes per game last season, while Randolph post ups and occasional spot up threes somehow led the team in scoring, at a paltry 14.5 PPG. You can understand why Kings fans wondered if any progress was made at all last season, despite a continued influx of young talent.

This brings us to the 2018-2019 season..

De’Aaron Fox

The only thing that can be certain of this upcoming season, is that everything starts with De’Aaron Fox. If the Kings are committed to building a quality organization that develops young talent, and can actually compete in the Pace ‘n Space era of today’s NBA, Swipa the Fox will need to be the starting point guard from Game 1, playing 30+ minutes a game all season. It doesn’t matter if he’s struggling to efficiently run the offense while looking even worse on defense, or alternately commanding respect by throwing down game-winning putback dunks.

The potential he’s flashed needs to be given the chance to develop. Consistent playing time has to happen. It’s pretty easy to see Fox snagging a defensive rebound and instantly blazing up court with Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic (or even Frank Mason III, who shot lights out in preseason) sprinting to opposite corners, while Willie Cauley-Stein and/or Marvin Bagley III (don’t worry, we’ll cover Harry Giles) set hard picks followed by crisp, explosive rim-runs. This is what NBA-caliber offenses do now, and the Kings need to prove they’re going to at least try to modernize.

Fox has more star potential than anyone on this roster (seriously, we’ll get to Giles), and he’s the real key to whether this very intriguing yet raw and inexperienced roster has the potential to make waves in today’s NBA. Per NBA.com, Fox was only in the 27th percentile when running the pick ‘n roll as the lead ball handler last season, with 6.2 possessions per game, averaging a paltry 0.70 points per possession. For comparison, CJ McCollum – as the secondary ball handler in Portland – averaged 7.2 pick ‘n roll possessions per game, at 0.92 points per possession, putting himself in the 78th percentile. That’s the kind of improvement I would expect from Fox this season, and fortunately, it looks like Joerger will give him the chance.

But it is on Fox to improve his shooting and playmaking (30.7% from three, 4.4 APG last season), and prove he can be a franchise cornerstone player. There is a lot of strange, potentially versatile talent on this Sacramento roster. Their biggest goal this season should be sorting that out, while really solidifying what identity they want going forward. All of that begins with De’Aaron Fox.

Buddy Hield

Buddy, along with Bogdan, were the Kings’ best players last season, and unfortunately, nobody outside Sacramento or the nerdiest of NBA circles, really took notice. Buddy’s shooting really took a leap, and he was among the league leaders for the entire season, ending up 9th (above Curry even, which I’m sure Vivek loved) at 43.1%, on 5.2 attempts per game. The Kings need to double down on that. Buddy should shoot 8+ threes per game this season. Assuming an uptick in minutes (25.3 mpg last season), and a quicker pace, anything less than eight threes a game seems low. Buddy is penciled in as the Kings’ gunslinger off the bench, ala Eric Gordon. Buddy shot 53.7% on corner threes last season, and picturing him bouncing off screens, making cuts, and popping out to the corner for quickfire catch and shoot 3’s is an extremely encouraging thought.

If he develops anything resembling the ability to consistently knock down 3’s off the dribble, we have an even bigger discussion to have. It’s never easy to pinpoint when young players will make “The Leap”. Buddy’s shooting alone should render him irreplaceable in 4th quarter lineups this season. But a bigger role in the offense (an encouraging 17-5-5 per 36 in the preseason), and some added peskiness and focus on defense, could cement his place on an NBA team, not only as a premiere sharpshooter, but as a legit rotation wing on a winning NBA squad as well.

Willie Cauley-Stein

This is it, folks. A make-or-break year for Willie, who is in the last year of his rookie contract. He was my favorite King to watch last season, frustratingly inconsistent though he was. When Willie plays with focus and confidence, his athleticism and versatile defense, coupled with his rim-running and high-post passing ability are all extremely valuable assets.

Willie developed a killer two-man game down the stretch last season with Bogdan Bogdanovic as seen here and here. Developing that go-to pick ‘n roll threat is a key element in being able to compete with the best teams in the NBA. Joerger should give them ample opportunity to explore that this year, assuming a speedy, full recovery. Something to watch for is how Joerger staggers Bogdan’s minutes with Fox (and Frank Mason/Yogi Ferrell, who both arguably outplayed Fox in preseason) and seeing who takes over lead ball-handler responsibilities throughout the game, especially in the 4th quarter. Willie will need to develop chemistry in the pick ‘n roll game with whoever has the ball at any given time. His craftiness in the high post could be extremely valuable. One should never overreact to preseason, but Willie’s per-36 minute statline over six preseason games was 20.5-10.1-3.5, with a big 2.6 steals, while shooting 56% from the field. That kind of all-around versatility could be huge for Sacramento if he finds consistency.

Willie is saying all the right things leading into training camp, and if that translates to his play on the floor, he could be a valuable piece moving forward, whether that’s as a King, or (sorry) a trade asset before the deadline. The Kings regrettably don’t have their 1st round pick next year, and using their cap space and young talent to remedy that is definitely on their agenda. Despite my (and Vlade’s) high hopes for him, I wouldn’t be surprised if WCS ends up being the odd man out of their crowded frontcourt, regardless of the obvious talent there.

Harry Giles III

Willie’s future also rests on the future of this man. The Kings seemingly have the X Factor of X Factors in Harry Giles III. We all know his highly-touted potential, his injury history, and the flashes of (overreaction alert) total dominance he showed in his nice Summer League debut back in July. Yes, it’s Summer League. But it’s hard not to get excited watching these highlights against the Suns.

His willingness to make the extra pass for a better shot, his ability to score with both hands and confidently knock down shots, while picking off passes like he’s Richard Sherman, or even stuffing shots back into opposing players’ faces? There is some very real, All-World, The Man on Both Ends of the Court potential there. But if I’ve learned anything in my life as a Kings fan, it’s to always temper expectations, as we just don’t know anything until it’s actually proven against the speed and talent of a real NBA game. While his all-around play in the preseason is very encouraging, Giles is still merely a prospect who, while yes, possesses an extremely high ceiling rivaling that of De’Aaron Fox, has never played an actual minute of NBA basketball.

Projected Lineups

PG: De’Aaron Fox
SG: Bogdan Bogdanovic
SF: Justin Jackson
PF: Marvin Bagley III
C: Willie Cauley-Stein

Bogdan’s unfortunate injury changes this, but assuming he comes back healthy, this starting lineup should see ample opportunity to flourish. The other option is Randolph (or the always intriguing Skal Labissiere, as his run this preseason indicated) starting instead of Bagley, if he’s not healthy or Joerger doesn’t think he’s ready.

The Kings have a logjam everywhere, but small forward Justin Jackson has arguably the easiest path to minutes on this team and I don’t envy Joerger’s task of finding quality minutes for all of his guys in hopes of building a winning culture and developing young talent at the same time. There are a lot of question marks, and we simply just don’t know what the Kings have here yet. Patience is key. Questions will hopefully be answered in time. If this starting five can develop some real chemistry together, and Bagley proves he’s NBA ready on offense right out of the gate (he will struggle on defense, as will the Kings in general, as is glaringly clear after their preseason games), this group is really fast and athletic, and could make opposing defenses work to make stops. If Joerger decides to try out some tricky small ball lineups, we can even plug in Buddy, move Jackson to the 4, and sub in Harry Giles at the 5 and just let them run wild. That’s one of a few smaller lineups I’d love to see going forward. It’s no death lineup, but it is brimming with one-through-five switchable defense and fast break potential. Again, the goal this season is developing young talent, seeing who pops, and proving they’re serious about competing in this era of NBA basketball.

A Dose of Reality

The truth is, outside of Bogie and Buddy, there just isn’t any proven talent that could be a contributor on a winning team yet. They will miss the veteran leadership of Vince Carter and Garrett Temple. This is a really young, raw roster, with high-ceiling/low-floor potential. A number of guys will need to see said floor to really develop, and they’ll likely need to find time for aging, expensive role-players like  Randolph and Kosta Koufos (and Iman Shumpert?). Joerger has his work cut out for him finding stable, quality lineups that can be a positive +/- against NBA-level talent. The best case scenario is that Fox makes a real sophomore leap (and isn’t completely lost on defense), Harry Giles is a legit, modern NBA player, and the Kings develop a couple of fast, switchy lineups that can hold their own against the high-powered offenses out West while continuing to build towards a future with at least two stars.

The worst case scenario is that injuries persist while inconsistencies and constant lineup changes completely stunt actual talent progression, and the Kings head into another early off-season with even more question marks than they can bargain for, while watching Luka Doncic runaway with the Rookie of the Year award.

Vlade and Co. have made some interesting moves the past couple of years, but there is some very real, high-level potential on this team. Unfortunately, the reality is that we just don’t know anything yet, and all we can do is wait and see how this all plays out.

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About J Maxwell Bash

Vinyl loving, League Pass watchin' NBA diehard stuck with little fanfare, nerding out about pour over coffee, in the Land of Iowa. #SacramentoProud

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