It can only go up from here. Sacramento Kings fans have been saying or thinking that for years. It’s been a begging plea as much as it’s been wishful thinking.
Their longest tenured player, Willie Cauley-Stein, has been there two seasons and, aside from Garrett Temple and Kosta Koufos, the rest of the current roster would need to pay a young renter’s fee to rent a car. Lucky for them, they’re all rather wealthy.
The Kings not only modified their roster, but got an entire face-lift when they traded two-time All-Star, DeMarcus Cousins last season. The main pieces in that trade were Buddy Hield and the rights to the New Orleans Pelicans first round pick. Hield performed well for the Kings while averaging 18 points, five rebounds and two assists per 36 minutes in 25 games. The pick the Kings received (No. 10 overall) was flipped on Draft Day for the 15 and 20 picks which then turned into Justin Jackson and Harry Giles.
Jackson, a junior out of North Carolina, broke the school’s all-time three-pointers made in a season record (105) and almost doubled the amount he made in his first two years combined at UNC (63). His ability to redefine himself as a three-point threat could come in handy for the Kings as they lost forwards Rudy Gay and Anthony Tolliver; two more signs of the team heading more towards a frat-house than retirement home.
Giles had a significantly lesser experience while in college. He averaged under four points per game at Duke and wasn’t able to outrun the shadow of his knee surgeries he had while in high school as the NBA Draft loomed. However, with the additional first-round pick, Sacramento must have felt comfortable enough to take him as a flyer, much like they did with Skal Labissiere the year before.
Labissiere was the second rated recruit out of high school, behind only Ben Simmons, but injuries while with Kentucky dropped him from a projected-lottery pick to a low first-round selection. As a starter, in 12 games, he averaged 11 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes. He also showed signs of the talent he was never able to muster while at Kentucky. Nothing was more proving of that than his 32-point, 11-rebound performance against the Phoenix Suns.
The biggest piece that the Kings added this off-season, however, wasn’t a part of the Cousins deal. De’Aaron Fox was the fifth pick in this year’s draft and is in prime position to start for the Kings. Both of the team’s point guards from last season, Darren Collison and Ty Lawson, are unrestricted free agents and will more than likely be telling Sacramento goodbye. Fox is for all intents and purposes expected to be the face of the franchise.
After leading the minor league NBA team — or as others like to call them, Kentucky Wildcats — to the Elite Eight, joining a team almost as young as Kentucky won’t be much of a change for Fox, who averaged 16 points, four rebounds and four assists in his one-and-done college career.
Not even mentioned so far are sophomores Georgios Papagiannis and Malachi Richardson.
Although the draft picks are the highlight so far, free agency is upon us and the Kings have plenty of money to play with. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise if they go around kicking tires and try to reel in some veterans to mentor the young bucks.
2006 was the last time the Kings were in the playoffs and since then, the team had never completely restored the team, trying to remodel the roster never seemed to work.
So now the team’s youth is a pretty site for sore-eyed fans, but it’s also sure to provide plenty of growing pains. There will be times when the team is out of sorts and some streaks of wins and losses should be expected. But, it’s up to the team’s leaders to ride the waves.
As the questions of veteran leadership, or lack thereof, chemistry and talent development swirl, Head Coach Dave Joerger will heavily rely on the majority of nine players on rookie contracts (basically meaning the players have less than four years in the league) and will have to provide the same type of hard-nosed coaching that was so prolific for him while with the Memphis Grizzlies. Joerger averaged 49 wins per season in his three years with the Grizz before the 32-win season with Sacramento last year.
Joerger at the helm for the Kings is probably the best thing that could happen for a young roster like theirs. While with the Grizzlies he was able to lead an oft-injured and somewhat underwhelming roster to the playoffs all three years. In Joerger’s first season with the Grizz, his third and fourth leading scorers, Marc Gasol and Courtney Lee, both missed significant time. Gasol was out more than 20 games and Lee missed more than 30. Reserve Tony Allen also missed 27 games. In his first two years, his defense also ranked third and second, respectively, in points allowed per game. His third season with Memphis proved to be the most challenging.
Out of the team’s big three of Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Gasol, Randolph played the most games, 68. Conley and Gasol missed 26 and 30. With the lack of consistent rotation and a merry-go-round of injuries, Joerger’s team barely inched into the postseason and were swept in four games, ultimately leading to his firing.
So, after years of musical coaches, the Kings have their guy and they have a talent full of promise. It’ll be up to the staff to get the most bang for their buck out of a roster that’s almost overflowing with untapped potential.
Featured image: 2017/18 Panini Instant NBA #10, Justin Jackson