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.