In losses to Thunder and Spurs, young Kings take their lumps

In losses to Thunder and Spurs, young Kings take their lumps

A month ago, a scheduled back-to-back against the Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs on the road looked ugly for the Sacramento Kings. They were in a playoff chase and at best, they were hoping for a split.

The team’s record means very little now and after falling in OKC and then again in San Antonio the next night by a final of 118-102, the Kings are positioned slightly better in the lottery standings.   

It’s a change in perspective that was forced upon the group after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins. The franchise’s ideological transformation has taken place and a youth movement is in full motion.

A lot can be gleaned from a battle with San Antonio. They are the gold standard of professional franchises and they play their very own distinctive brand of hoops. If you can’t learn from watching and playing against a team like the Spurs, maybe you don’t belong in the league.

“They’re professionals, man, it’s the Spurs,” Buddy Hield told reporters. “They find a way to grind it and win. It’s a culture, it’s an issue they’ve shown. It’s good to learn from a team like this.”

The Kings aren’t going to forfeit any games down the stretch. They are going to show up and take their lumps with a rotation that now features a slew of first and second year players. Injuries have hurt their depth and with two players away from the team due to personal reasons, the team is undersized and outmanned.   

“They come at you at you in waves and waves and they did a great job,” Dave Joerger said of San Antonio. “The biggest story is they are just bigger and more experienced.”

Sacramento can fix the issue of size during the offseason, specifically at the small forward position. They can even bring in players with more experience, but half of the Spurs roster has been together for six years or more and that familiarity is extremely tough to overcome for a newly formed team like the Kings.

“We’re young, but we still have to find a way to compete and get back in the flow and execute much stronger and think harder,” Hield added.

Hield has played in 13 games with the Kings since coming over from the New Orleans Pelicans. He has a moxy to him that was sorely needed as the Kings hit the reset button on their roster. The 23-year-old shooting guard even found himself matched up against the league’s best two-way player in Kawhi Leonard and he held his own.

“We’re not backing down, we’re in this league too, no one is going to feel sorry for us” Hield said. “We’ve got to keep getting better and keep growing.”

Hield finished the night with 18 points on 8-of-14 shooting. He added five rebounds and five assists in his 32 minutes of action and continues to show signs that he is a starting level NBA player moving forward.

That is what this Kings season has become - a job interview for next season for the young players.

Hield has shown flashes in his brief stay in Sacramento. He can score both from the perimeter and in the lane. He has shown an ability to rebound for a wing player and Joerger and his staff are building a list of items that they will ask the rookie to work on over the summer.

While Hield has played more minutes in year one, he’s in a very similar spot that fellow rookie Skal Labissiere is in. The 21-year-old Haitian product continues to put up numbers, despite very limited exposure to the NBA game.

“It’s a great learning experience, it’s all about growth right now,” Labissiere said. “Whenever I go out there I try to learn as much as I can for the next game or the next season coming up.”

Labissiere dropped in 14 points on 7-of-9 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 24 minutes of action. He continues to improve and has now scored in double-figures in four straight contests for Sacramento.

“I work so much on my skillset, I feel like I can score the basketball whenever,” said Labissiere.

Hield and Labissiere have Kings fans excited, but fellow first rounder Georgios Papagiannis has been a complete unknown.

After spending most of the season in the D-League, the 7-foot-1 Greek-born big has played a combined 46 minutes over the last two games (98 minutes total for his career). He set career-highs in points (14) and rebounds (11) against the Thunder and backed that up with a 6-point, 10-rebound game against the Spurs.

Papagiannis has tremendous size and a soft touch. Getting to play against Steven Adams one night and Pau Gasol the next is both overwhelming and instructive. The fact that he’s grabbed double-digit rebounds in both games shows promise.

Second-year big Willie Cauley-Stein added 18 points, five assists and four rebounds in the losing effort to San Antonio. Like Hield, Labissiere and Papagiannis, Cauley-Stein continues to show improvement as the season winds down.

These four, along with the injured Malachi Richardson, make up the Kings’ young core moving forward. They will have nights where they shock teams like Orlando or Phoenix, but they will also have tough night’s against perennial playoff contenders like the Thunder and Spurs.

It’s a process. Patience is required as a new generation of Kings players build from the ground up.

Fultz a perfect fit, but do Kings have assets required to trade up?

Fultz a perfect fit, but do Kings have assets required to trade up?

It’s lonely at the top, which is where Markelle Fultz sits on almost every 2017 NBA Draft board. The Brooklyn Nets should be set for the next decade with a big time scoring point guard. Instead, it’s the Boston Celtics who have no choice but to take Fultz with the No. 1 overall selection after a savvy trade that sent veterans Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry to the Nets for a stack of picks and players back in 2013.

Fultz can do it all. He’s deadly from the outside, he can take you off the bounce and he has elite passing skills to boot. In a draft packed with star potential, specifically at the point guard position, the freshman from Washington stands out well above the rest.  

It would take a major shake up at the top for Fultz not to have his name called first on draft night, but there are plenty of very talented players sitting on the board behind him. Here is a deeper look at the potential top overall selection.

The Positives:
Fultz has tremendous size, length and athleticism for an NBA point guard. He measured in at 6-foot-5, 195-pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan and has a frame built to take on muscle. At just 19-years-old, he is already well defined physically and has plenty of room to grow and get stronger.

A crafty, high-end scorer, Fultz changes speed and direction well and has an advanced Euro-step for a young player. He averaged 23.2 points in 35.7 minutes a night for the Huskies while shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three. He can score from all three levels, finish well above the rim and play through contact.

In his lone season in college, Fultz showed that he is not only a legitimate scoring threat, but he is a willing passer and an unselfish teammate. While Lonzo Ball is considered the true pass first point guard of the draft, Fultz had a higher assist rate (35.5 to 31.5) and lower turnover rate (13.4 to 18.2) than the star guard from UCLA.

Fultz rebounds well for his position, averaging 5.7 rebounds per game at Washington. He also has potential as a defender, posting 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks, although he is a work in progress on that end of the floor.

Known as a high-character kid and tireless worker off the court, Fultz has the entire package. He can also play the lead or shooting guard spot, which will come in handy if the Celtics decide to pair him with All-Star Isaiah Thomas in the backcourt.

The Negatives:
9-16 is a concern. Great college players should be able to will their team to victory, even if the talent around them is suspect. Washington was certainly worse off without Fultz down the stretch, losing their last six while he sat with a knee injury.

Shot selection and sloppy ball handling was also an issue this season. In Fultz’ defense, he played with a group that lacked overall talent and those issues might eventually disappear when he’s added to a roster that made it to the Eastern Conference Finals.  

Fultz is a quality chase down defender, but he fell asleep on plenty of plays or didn’t show a consistent fight on the defensive end. Lack of focus allowed for plenty of back cuts. He also showed an inconsistent effort fighting through screens.

He’s a work in progress on the defensive end, like most young players coming into the league. Most of these issues can easily be coached out of him at the next level.

Projection:
Fultz has an advanced feel and tons of room to expand his game. On the court, he resembles another former Husky in Brandon Roy. Fultz is much further along than Roy was at the same age, but possesses both the ability to score from anywhere on the court, as well as rebound and set up his teammates.  

It’s hard to imagine the Celtics passing on Fultz with the top overall selection, but if they do, teams will scramble trying to move up to select him. He would fit perfectly in the Kings starting backcourt alongside sophomore Buddy Hield, but Sacramento lacks the assets to move from five to one, Fultz’ likely landing spot.

 

With gaping holes to fill, 2017 NBA Draft offers Kings several options

With gaping holes to fill, 2017 NBA Draft offers Kings several options

The Sacramento Kings walk into the 2017 offseason with gaping holes in their roster. Free agency will play a role, but before they get to spending their $60-plus million in cap space, Vlade Divac, Scott Perry, Ken Catanella and the rest of the front office will try to fill some of their needs via the draft.

While the first batch of draft prospects rolled through Sacramento late last week, Vlade Divac, along with European scout Predrag Drobnjak spent the weekend in Istanbul, Turkey at the European Championships. Sharpshooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic led Fenerbahçe to its first title, further building the hype around one of Europe’s best young stars.

Divac acquired the rights to Bogdanovic in a draft day trade last summer when the 6-foot-6 Serbian was tossed in along with picks 13 and 28 for the 9th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft. Divac would love to entice the 24-year-old wing to play in the NBA next season.

Even if Bogdanovic buys in, the Kings need more.

Both Darren Collison and Ty Lawson are unrestricted free agents, leaving Langston Galloway as the only point guard on the roster. Rudy Gay has already informed the team that he intends to opt out of his $14.3 million player option for next season, opening a massive need at the small forward position.

The needs are clear. Sacramento has to find a point guard and small forward of the future. They also need a point guard and a small forward of the right now. If a player fits both now and in the future, so be it.

Lady luck shined brightly on the Kings during the draft lottery. A move from No. 8 to No. 3 would have guaranteed a point guard, but a pick swap to No. 5 still has Sacramento in the running to fill one of their biggest voids.

While plenty of mock drafts have a variety of players in the top five of the 2017 NBA Draft, there is a clear group that Sacramento will likely focus on. Barring a major trade, point guard Markelle Fultz out of the University of Washington is projected to go with the first overall selection, but then it’s wide open how the next four picks will unfold.

UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is projected to go to the Los Angeles Lakers at No. 2 in most mocks, but nothing is a sure bet. Small forwards Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum are top five selections as well, while Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox is an early draft climber.

Sacramento would love nothing more than to see Fox sitting on the board when they select at five. He’s slight of build, but the 6-foot-3 speedster is a high character player with tons of potential. He would step in and instantly compete for a starting job with the Kings’ young core.

There are concerns that Fox won’t make it to five and the Kings have a few options if they want to move up, but the real question is, should they?

If Fox is gone, Sacramento will still have a player on the board at a position of need. Be it Ball, Jackson or Tatum, the talent pool is rich. Finding a floor general is important, but finding a star should be the top priority. All five have potential to become more than just a starter in the league and all five fit one of the team’s two most glaring weaknesses on the current roster.

Drafting either Jackson or Tatum would instantly bump the talent level of the team. Both are considered top tier prospects and for Sacramento, likely starters on Day 1.

Jackson is a catalyst type player and personality that brings energy, as well as a tremendous skill set. He can pass, rebound, play defense at a high level and score above the rim. He’ll be an instant fan favorite wherever he lands.

Tatum has potential as a two-way player, but his offensive game should instantly translate to the NBA level. A polished scorer, Tatum would step in and give the Kings a scoring option to fill the shoes of Gay, who is on the verge of becoming an unrestricted free agent.

The Top 10 has plenty of other high end prospects. Sacramento could chase a shooting big in Lauri Markkanen. The 7-footer out of Arizona would help to stretch the floor at the four, but their other needs are more obvious.

Fox’s backcourt mate at Kentucky, Malik Monk, is also an intriguing player, but with Buddy Hield, Garrett Temple, Malachi Richardson and the potential for Bogdanovic to join the team, the Kings are heavy at the shooting guard spot.

Point guard Dennis Smith has a high ceiling and would likely challenge for top five consideration if it wasn’t for a torn ACL in high school and some questions about his attitude.

If Sacramento selects a small forward with the fifth pick and Smith was still available when they choose again at No. 10, he becomes a lower risk proposition the Kings might have to consider.

Point guard Frank Ntilikina out of France would fit the bill as well in the right situation. If the Kings land Jackson or Tatum at five, they could come back with Ntilikina at 10. He’s young and inexperienced, but he also stands at 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan. His defensive potential at the point is tremendous, but he is a project on the offensive end, not a polished player like the four point guards expected to go ahead of him in the draft.

Combo forward Jonathan Isaac is an appealing prospect, but he’ll need plenty of time to develop and he’s a better target if he somehow slips to 10. Like Smith and Ntilikina, this would be a nice addition if the Kings fill their other need with the fifth overall selection.

Regardless of how they got to No.’s 5 and 10, the Kings are in a good spot. They have options and plenty of players at positions of need and there is potential to land a future star. Once the draft rolls around on June 22, the focus will quickly shift to shoring up the remainder of the squad. With two high picks, the potential addition of Bogdanovic and plenty of cap space, the Kings are primed for a big time roster overhaul this summer.