When Sacramento Kings’ General Manager Vlade Divac pulled the trigger on a controversial, blockbuster deal that sent DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans last February, it unofficially kicked off the team’s latest rebuilding effort. Trading a player of Cousins’ magnitude is never easy, but the organization had reached a boiling point. As the Kings have failed to qualify for the playoffs since 2006 (the second longest active streak in the league behind Minnesota) due to on-court struggles, the organization opted for a youthful movement, including five rookies and four sophomores, featured prominently in the nightly rotation.
The Cousins trade thrust Sacramento into the great unknown, competing in the highly competitive Western Conference without a bona fide All-Star to lean on and featuring one of the league’s youngest rosters. Anyone who anticipated the Kings being a .500 team this season could only be described as an eternal optimist.
Unfortunately, young teams simply do not win in this league. Karl Anthony-Towns and Andrew Wiggins are in their third year together and have yet to lift the Minnesota Timberwolves from the doldrums. Philadelphia’s 76ers are much further along than the Kings in the process, have landed generational talent in Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and are barely .500 as of this writing. Kevin Durant won 20 games his first year, then, with Russell Westbrook, won just 23 his second season. Hell, even LeBron couldn’t make the playoffs his rookie year.
The wins simply were not going to be there for Sacramento this season. They will pick high in the 2018 NBA Draft, adding another talented prospect to this group in what is shaping up to be a considerably deep draft class.
De’ Fox Will Be Found
Head Coach Dave Joerger and his respected staff are making the young guys earn minutes rather than anoint them saviors from day one, particularly in the case of rookie phenom De’Aaron Fox. The team has also made a conscious choice to frequently team rookies with established veterans on the floor, such as point guard George Hill who has certainly played a role in the training wheels they’ve put on Fox.
However, since Fox’s return on January 2 from a nagging quad injury, he has increasingly had the ball in his hands to initiate the offense, logged at least 30 minutes in each contest and has played the best stretch of basketball in his rookie campaign. Coach Joerger no doubt realizes the growth and improvement of his 20-year-old point guard is hands down the most important thing for this franchise.
Eyes On The Rookies
The other rookies have had plenty of bright spots as well. Guard Bogdan Bogdanovic has surpassed the team’s lofty expectations as his basketball IQ jumps off the screen, constantly anticipating plays before they happen, and has displayed a deadly three-point stroke as well.
Second-round draft choice Frank Mason III didn’t play in the first couple months, but had earned a spot in the rotation before a recent heel ailment. Mason had begun to really establish himself as an off the dribble creator and a respected jump shooter.
Forward Justin Jackson has bounced back and forth to the team’s G-League affiliate throughout the season, but has been productive when called upon, using his length as a disruptive defender and doing a little bit of everything out on the court.
Lastly, Forward Harry Giles has yet to log a minute in an NBA uniform, with the team treating the 2017-18 as a red shirt year essentially. Giles has fully recovered from his two catastrophic injuries while in high school, but the Kings are taking a very patient approach with Giles. It was originally stated that he would be reevaluated in January, so there remains a chance Kings fans could see Giles the second half of the season.
The Roster Must Prosper
Going forward, Sacramento finds itself in an interesting position with their roster composition.
Quite frankly, they are overstocked at the point guard position, as you can’t play 3 point guards in a 48-minute game. Fox is unquestionably the future and will soon be handed the keys. Hill has been solid, but not spectacular, and his status as the team’s highest paid player could make him expendable to a contender looking to add a steady veteran hand at lead guard, clearing the way for De’Aaron. At shooting guard, Buddy Hield has been in and out of the starting lineup, but has enjoyed a productive year after a slow start. It’s forgotten sometimes that Buddy is only in his 2nd year, but he is an outstanding and lethal shooter in a league that continues to put more and more of an emphasis on the 3-point shot. Meanwhile, Garrett Temple serves as an outstanding locker room presence and lock-down defender.
Small forward remains a question mark, as the Kings have often times gone small and put Temple or Bogdanovic at the three, while their big man rotation is crowded.
Remarkably, Zach Randolph has been the Kings’ best player this season, at age 36. He leads the team in scoring and is the Kings’ offense in the half court. Willie Cauley-Stein, just 24 years old, has had his best year as a pro. However, he’s still not the rim protector or rebounder you would hope for with his athleticism and size. Skal Labissiere has seen inconsistent minutes but has proven to be a consistent scorer. It’s on the defensive end where, like Cauley-Stein, you would like to see Labissiere utilize his unlimited length to bother and contest shots at the rim.
For the first time in a long time, the Kings have a clear plan and the future does look bright in Sacramento. The Kings have significant cap space going forward, the nicest arena in the league, a proven winner in place at head coach and are slated again to draft top 5 in 2018, in addition to the number of intriguing prospects currently on the roster. Sooner rather than later, that dreadful playoff drought will be broken.