Season Autopsies: The Sacramento Kings finding their voice
For more than a decade, the Sacramento Kings have existed as a directionless organization with no voice, no leadership, and little connection to the city.
In the past week, tragedy in their own backyard has forced the Kings to find all three.
On March 21, an unarmed Sacramento resident, Stephon Clark, was shot 20 times outside of his grandmother’s homes by police responding to reports of a man breaking into a car on that same block.
Two days later, protesters formed a human barricade outside the Golden 1 Center, preventing tens of thousands of people from attending the Kings’ game against the Atlanta Hawks.
Only 2,000 were admitted before security locked the doors, preventing other patrons from entering the arena. Afterwards, owner Vivek Ranadive, backed by the entire Kings roster, addressed the crowd:
“We are so very sorry for your loss. We at the Kings recognize people’s ability to protest peacefully and we respect that. We here at the Kings recognize that we have a big platform. It’s a privilege but it’s also a responsibility. It’s a responsibility that we take very seriously and we stand here before you, old, young, black, white, brown, and we are all united in our commitment.”
In a time when sports and politics continue to intertwine, Ranadive’s comments—and the actions the Kings have taken since—stand out. It’s rare to see a franchise speak in such a manner as the Kings’ owner opted to.
Spearheaded by superstars LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony, the NBA has found itself on the right side of a lot of issues facing this country. The Kings actions in response to protest and civic unrest reaffirmed that.
The Youth Movement
And while the Kings stepped into their place within their community with purpose, the players are only now starting to find their voice on the court.
Sacramento is in the midst of a transitional season, drafting three rookies in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft: De’Aron Fox (5), Justin Jackson (15), and Harry Giles (20). With their second round pick, they tabbed former National Player of the Year, Frank Mason.
From overseas, they brought in Bogdan Bogdanovic from Serbia, whose rights they acquired in a draft night trade with the Phoenix Suns in 2016.
In tandem with Bruno Cabaclo (acquired midseason), Willie Cauley-Stein, Jack Cooley, Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, and JaKaar Sampson, 11 of the 16 players on the current roster have three or less years of NBA experience.
Getting quality young talent hasn’t always been a problem for the Kings (see: Cousins, DeMarcus). The NBA has seen quality seasons from the likes of Tyreke Evans, Patrick Patterson, Omri Casspi, Hassan Whiteside, and Isaiah Thomas.
The issue is in developing it.
To that end, instead of placing its young prospects’ feet to the fire immediately, Sacramento invested in veteran leadership to help show their youthful the roster the ropes.
Zach Randolph, Vince Carter, and George Hill were signed with expectations of mentoring the young roster while providing enough basketball production to not exclusively rely on the young core.
Vince Carter, Half Mentor, Half Amazing
Carter has really bought into his mentor role this season with the Kings. The high-flying 40-year-old told the Sacramento Bee the Kings recruiting pitch “was all about influencing the franchise,” and that is exactly what he’s done.
— Vince Carter Update (@VCUpdate15) February 14, 2018
Every young player has gotten some advice from Carter at one point or another this season.
When you dunk like @mrvincecarter15, you gotta celebrate like him, too. 😎
For someone who has spent a lot of the time soaring through the paint, the most pointed tips have related to injury prevention.
In that same Sacramento Bee article Carter told the newspaper, “Learning how to fall is just as important as strengthening your body,” he said. “Understanding when you go off one foot, what could happen against particular guys. When you go off two feet, you are protecting yourself. I say this now, but when I was younger, I was reckless, too. I didn’t care. That’s why all those injuries were happening to me, because I kept going to the rim, hitting the floor hard.”
It remains to be seen if Carter will be around with the Kings longer than one year, but the lessons he’s passed on have certainly helped the young core adjust to life in the NBA.
Zach Randolph and George Hill
Zach Randolph isn’t as much of a contributor as Carter has been at times, but he did carry the team to begin the season before the Kings went all-in on developing their young guys.
Randolph’s game has never been predicated on athleticism and his sheer size and girth have helped him become one of the most dominant interior players in the NBA during his career.
Having a proven scorer like that on the team is huge for the confidence of guards like Fox, Mason, Bogdanovic and Hield.
Dating back to his time with the Grizzlies, Z-Bo has ranked in the 95th percentile or better on assisted rates on makes around the rim according to CleaningTheGlass’ data.
Teams still have to respect Randolph’s ability to score inside and it can free up shooters like Bogdanovic and Hield on the perimeter and also gives slashing guards like Mason and Fox a dump off option at the rim.
George Hill never really found his footing with the Kings.
In a perfect world, Sacramento could’ve let Hill and Fox operate together for stretches, yet Hill just wasn’t flourishing in an off-the-ball role during his time out West.
With the Kings opting to get Fox more reps to establish himself as the point guard of the future, Hill’s lack of production wasn’t doing much to help the team.
Word also got out Hill wasn’t exactly the greatest of cheerleaders for the young players behind the scenes. A change of scenery was best for all parties and losing Hill didn’t cause the mentorship of the team suffer at all.
De’Aaron Fox and the burgeoning big three
It didn’t take long before De’Aaron Fox showed he was ready to take more on his plate. In light of Hill’s struggles, Fox was handed the reigns at the trade deadline and hasn’t looked back.
While he hasn’t set the NBA ablaze like other members of his draft class, glimpses of his potential are inspiring.
Fox’s speed and athleticism are already at an elite level for an NBA guard. He gets into the paint whenever he wants, possessing a burst and first step combination that makes him nearly impossible to defend on the perimeter.
De'Aaron Fox takes flight pic.twitter.com/HsaaBP5dfJ
— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) March 25, 2018
Like all rookies, he’s still adjusting to the size and length of the rim protectors, and his two point field goal percentage has slipped down to about 45 percent compared to the 52.1 percent he shot at Kentucky.
But he’s also proven to be a better shooter than he was during his one year with Kentucky. He shot 24.6 percent on 69 three-point attempts a year ago and in his debut season he’s nearly doubled his attempts (130 3PA) and has seen his percentage rise to 32.3 percent with Sacramento.
Teams will still live with him opting to take perimeter jumpers, but Fox has been better than expected.
The path to taking the next step as a player is clear for Fox; Sacramento really needs for Fox to realize his full potential.
Next to Fox, 25-year-old rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic has been the brightest development for the Kings.
He was a star in the Euro League before he made the jump to the NBA, and once he saw his playing time increase in December, he has looked like the best piece of the Kings youth movement.
Bogdanovic is an excellent one-on-one player. He plays the game at his pace and knows the spots on the floor where he is most effective.
Per CleaningTheGlass stats, Bogdanovic attempts 41 percent of his shots from deep (only six percent from the corners), 40 percent of his shots from mid-range (which ranks in the 74th percentile of all players) and just 19 percent of his shots at the rim. That all comes together to form his 53.3 effective field goal percentage on the season.
Bogdan Bogdanovic apunta alto… y dispara de lejos. ¡¡From the deep!!pic.twitter.com/V2u6ZXdPZc
— Directos Al Aro (@DirectosAlAro) March 15, 2018
Having a player like Bogdanovic, who has not only played competitive basketball previously against top competition and is not afraid of the big moment—the rookie has hit clutch late-game shots against Golden State, Chicago, Brooklyn, and the Los Angeles Lakers this year—allows for the other pieces for the future get brought along at their own pace.
Harry Giles was once considered the can’t-miss prospect from the 2017 NBA Draft class that is on it’s way to challenging the groups from 1985, 1999, and 2003 as the best rookie class of all-time.
At 14, Giles stood at 6-foot-9 and had the quintessential inside-out game the modern NBA looks for out of their bigs. Fast forward to his junior year and Giles had shot up to 6-foot-11 and had refined his game even more.
Giles looked the part of the generational prospect many believe DeAndre Ayton to be. It’s unlikely the explosiveness that once powered Giles will ever return after having multiple surgeries on both knees within a four-year span.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBCS) March 21, 2018
However, even if the athleticism doesn’t return, Giles has the skills and talent to be an effective player in the league.
Having the foresight to let an NBA medical staff get to work solely on his rehabilitation and getting him as close to returning to the player he once was could be a franchise altering decision.
With Bogdanovic adjusting smoothly and Fox taking over the reigns early, if Giles is ever able to reach anything close to his perceived ceiling the Kings will have the makings of their own “big three” in the next couple of seasons.
For as much potential as youth offers, there is hardly ever a case where a massive commitment to going young is immediately followed by an increase in production.
Sacramento doesn’t really have an identity yet. They struggle to score points in the half court offensively and defensively they bleed buckets. Having a young roster is partially to blame, but at some point the talent is too good for the results to be as poor as they have been for the Kings.
The inexperience was on full display throughout the season.
They ranked 29th out of 30 in points scored per 100 possessions (103.6) and 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions (111. 9). Offensively their issues can be found in shot making (CleaningTheGlass ranks their 50.8 team effective field goal percentage dead last) and free throw rate (their 14.1 percentage also ranked dead last per CleaningTheGlass).
The Kings’ 12-year playoff drought will become the longest active streak once Minnesota breaks through. Even mediocrity would be better than what fans have had to deal with recently.
This Vlade-Vivek combination have done little to instill confidence that this will work out for the franchise. However, it seems as if they are finally listening to those with more knowledge and experience than them.
The front office underwent some rearranging before the season as 13 people either changed roles or were brought in this year.
Sacramento has lacked direction since the end of Divac’s playing days. With a roster full of younger players and a still relatively inexperienced ownership and front office, the Kings are reaching out to discover their voice once more.