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.

NBA Gameday: Kings visit Westbrook, Thunder looking for third straight win

NBA Gameday: Kings visit Westbrook, Thunder looking for third straight win

The Sacramento Kings are back at it Saturday afternoon, looking for their third straight win. They’ll face MVP candidate Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena in the first game of a back-to-back.

Skal Labissiere took a major step forward in his development in the Kings last game, dropping in a career-high 32 points on 11-of-15 shooting to go with 11 rebounds. The smooth shooting rookie out of the University of Kentucky is blossoming since the All-Star break and looking to build off his recent success.

The Thunder are in the thick of the playoff chase. They currently sit in the sixth spot in the Western Conference playoff chase, but they trail the Los Angeles Clippers by just a half game for fifth in the standings with just 14 games remaining in the season.

OPENING LINE

Thunder by 12.5

MATCHUP TO WATCH

Skal Labissiere vs. Domantas Sabonis -- Neither of these rookies may start the game, but expect Labissiere to get plenty of playing time after his breakout performance against the Suns. Sabonis started the first 64 games of the year for OKC, but has given way to veteran Taj Gibson over the last four contests. Taken with the 11th overall selection in the 2016 NBA Draft, Sabonis is a highly skilled stretch four with range. Dave Joerger likes to match up his young players against players with similar experience. Expect these two to see a lot of each other in the Saturday matinee.

WHERE THEY STAND

Kings: 27-41, third place in Pacific

Thunder: 39-29, second place in Northwest

INJURY REPORT

Kings: SF Tyreke Evans (sore left ankle) out, Arron Afflalo (personal - not with team) out, Ben McLemore (personal - not with team) out, SG Malachi Richardson (right hamstring partial tear) out, F Rudy Gay (torn left Achilles) out for season.

Thunder: No injuries to report.

SERIES HISTORY

The season series between these two teams is knotted at 1-1 after the Thunder took down the Kings at Chesapeake Energy on Jan. 15. The Thunder hold a 141-85 all-time lead over the Kings and an 84-49 advantage in the Sacramento-era.

QUOTE

“I just want to give glory to God, that was him out there. I spent a lot of time before the game in prayer and came out here and just played. I just played hard and my teammates did a really good at finding me. Coach put me in a good situation to succeed.” -Labissiere after his big game against the Phoenix Suns

Labissiere goes off, gives Kings promise for future

Labissiere goes off, gives Kings promise for future

Sacramento Kings fans need a little ray of hope, something to pin their dreams to after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins over All-Star weekend. Wednesday night at Talking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Arizona, a 6-foot-11 rookie reached into the sky and single handedly pushed the dark clouds to the side. 

Skal Labissiere sold some jerseys in Sacramento’s 107-101 win over the Suns. His 32-point, 11-rebound performance has the NBA buzzing and even the broadcast team got caught up in the moment.

“Can the guys shoot 3s?” long time play-by-play announcer Grant Napear asked on the telecast as Labissiere rose up from behind the arc in the fourth quarter. “YES. HE. CAN. Oh boy! Fasten your seatbelts, the Skal Labissiere era is underway in Sacramento!”

The Kings have taken a cautious approach to bringing along the 20-year-old big out of Haiti, but they are quickly realizing they stumbled upon a gold mine. Labissiere has a million dollar smile, an incredible story of survival, and he might just have the game to tie it all together. 

“I just want to give glory to God, that was him out there,” the humble Labissiere told CSN California’s Kayte Christensen. “I spent a lot of time before the game in prayer and came out here and just played. I just played hard and my teammates did a really good at finding me. Coach put me in a good situation to succeed.”

Coach Dave Joerger used restraint in bringing along all of the Kings’ rookies this season. Labissiere played 17 games with the Reno Bighorns of the D-League early in the year, but since the trade of Cousins, the Kings have shifted into rebuild mode. 

Development coach Larry Lewis and the rest of the coaching staff have worked tirelessly to bring the Kings’ young core along. Labissiere needed to learn how to play through contact and he has stacked on muscle to his lanky frame in order to compete. He’s still a work in progress, but his 21-point fourth quarter shows that he might be something special. 

“It’s Skal’s night,” fellow rookie Buddy Hield said. “Skal’s doing things. I’m happy to see Skal playing with a lot of confidence. He’s got a lot of potential and I just can’t wait to see what other great things God has in store for him.”

Even the veterans were caught off guard by the eruption from one of their rookies. Garrett Temple was so focused on shutting down sharpshooter Devin Booker that he didn’t even notice that Labissiere had posted his first 30-point game of his career until late in the game.

“He’s always been a confident guy, the thing with Skal is he’s so quiet, so humble, you don’t see it until he gets in between those lines,” Temple said. “We thrive on his energy, everybody loves to see him play well.”

With his teammates feeding him on almost every possession down the stretch, the former University of Kentucky big answered the call. He shot an impressive 11-for-15 from the field and knocked down 9-of-11 from the line in a career-high 30 minutes of action.

“He just knows he can play the game,” Temple added. “He puts in the work and he trusts himself, he trusts his work.”

The hype will build from here, which will likely make life more difficult on Labissiere. The Suns aren’t known for their defensive prowess and the Kings rookie spent plenty of time matched up against a fellow 2016 draftee in Marquese Chriss. Chriss, a Sacramento-native who is far from a lockdown defender in his first season in the league, was clearly overmatched. 

It was Labissiere’s night, but plenty of other Kings contributed as Sacramento picked up their second straight victory. Willie Cauley-Stein stuffed the stat sheet, finishing with 14 points, 11 rebounds, five assists, four steals and four blocks. Arron Afflalo added 14 points and Temple helped hold Booker to just 6-of-26 shooting on the night. 

More to the story

It was Labissiere’s party, but there was a another member of the Kings organization that had a big night on Wednesday. General manager Vlade Divac has taken a beating for plenty of his decisions since taking over the Kings’ front office a little under two years ago. 

One of those decisions was to trade the No. 8 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft for the No. 13, No. 28 and the draft rights to Bogdan Bogdanovic. The Suns selected Chriss at No. 8 and he’s started 61 games in his rookie season for Phoenix. With the 13th overall selection, Divac chose Georgios Papagiannis, who has played very sparingly in his rookie campaign and is considered a project. 

Divac backed that pick up by taking Labissiere with the No. 28 pick. After watching the two go head-to-head, there is no question that Labissiere is further along in his development and the argument could be made that he also has a much higher ceiling than Chriss. 

The trade will take a few more years to fully evaluate, but the early returns are good for Divac and his staff.