With five incoming rookies, the Kings finally look poised to embrace their youth movement.
The 2005-06 NBA season was one for the books: The Miami Heat won their first franchise title, Steve Nash earned his second consecutive MVP award, Chris Paul was elected Rookie of the Year, and the Sacramento Kings made their final playoff appearance to date.
This 11-year losing streak is second only to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who look more than poised to break their curse with the addition of Jimmy Butler, Jeff Teague, and others. However, despite adding a lottery pick talent every year since 2006, the Kings have failed to ever embrace a rebuild from the ground up. During this time, only two Kings rookies received contract extensions: DeMarcus Cousins and Jason Thompson. Other lottery picks that have come and gone include Tyreke Evans, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Jimmer Fredette, and Spencer Hawes — not to mention second-round gems Hassan Whiteside and Isaiah Thomas.
While many of these players proved problematic in their own right, a lack of focus and attention has stunted the overall development of the Kings’ youth movement. Instead of handing their rookies the keys to the kingdom, Sacramento has instead tried (and failed) to improve through a slew of aging veterans: Rudy Gay, Arron Afflalo, Rajon Rondo, Samuel Dalembert, Mikki Moore… and the list goes on.
This year, however, the Kings finally look ready to turn things around. Their roster currently consists of only five players with over three years of NBA experience, while the remaining 10 are rookies, sophomores, and third-year players. With a renewed focus on their youth movement — complete with fresh veteran mentors to lead by example — the Kings’ long-term future looks stronger than ever.
New Franchise Faces
The Kings made an impressive splash in free agency this summer, adding George Hill, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph on one- to three-year deals. Each will surely receive major minutes, and Hill is a practical lock to start after averaging 16.9 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.0 steals per game last year in his lone season with the Jazz. And yet, as evidenced by online promotions and public appearances, the Kings have instead elected their younger leaders as the new franchise faces, thus confirming a significant culture change in Sacramento.
At Nike’s uniform unveiling ceremony last week, lottery pick De’Aaron Fox was chosen to represent the team by modeling their new Statement Edition jersey — a retread of last year’s black-and-silver Global alternate. The honor of participating in such a high profile event featuring superstars Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, and others was not lost on Fox. “Me, being a rookie out here, it’s cool just being able to see all these guys that I’ve been watching for years,” he told Sacramento’s ABC10. Further promos on social media highlight Buddy Hield, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, and Malachi Richardson, an obvious focus towards the future, while the Kings’ veterans have received little advertisement at all.
The Developing Talent
The Kings enter this season without seven of last year’s vets, having paved the way for youth development via trade (Cousins), free agency subtractions (Gay, Darren Collison, Ty Lawson), and waivers (Afflalo, Matt Barnes, and Anthony Tolliver).
The losses of Collison and Lawson in particular bode well for Sacramento’s marquee rookie, Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox. Hoping to outperform preceding No. 5 busts (see Kris Dunn, Mario Hezonja, Dante Exum, Alex Len, and Robinson), Fox is highly touted for his speed and full-court vision, having led the SEC with 4.6 assists per game. In many ways, his play best mirrors that of Thomas, a fellow lefty who spent three years with the Kings from 2011-2014.
Under the mentorship of Hill, the Kings hope Fox will soon develop a dynamic backcourt tandem with sophomore shooting guard Buddy Hield. Added at the deadline last season amidst the Cousins trade with New Orleans, Hield flourished with the Kings while starting 18 of 25 games. His scoring average nearly doubled in Sacramento, and he finished with 15.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game following the move. Hield was selected to the 2016-17 All-Rookie team and finished fourth in Rookie of the Year voting.
The next major piece of Sacramento’s rising core is Willie Cauley-Stein. Heading into his third NBA season, the upcoming campaign bodes well for the big man. Between October and January of last season, Cauley-Stein averaged just 5.1 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. However, following the Cousins trade, Cauley-Stein enjoyed a boost of 15.3 minutes during the latter half of the season. As a result, his production drastically improved to 12.0 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.0 steals per contest between February and April. The tutelage of Randolph will also be a positive factor in Cauley-Stein’s development, especially in the rebounding department.
Meanwhile, rookies Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, and Bogdan Bogdanović are all candidates to become breakout stars in Sacramento, though not without risk. Giles remains the biggest mystery after suffering ACL tears in both knees during his high school career, consequently playing only 11.5 minutes per game in his lone season at Duke. Meanwhile, out of North Carolina and Serbia, respectively, shooters Jackson and Bogdanović must prove their readiness against NBA-level defenders. Should they need more time to adjust, the rookies could find themselves on the outside looking in with Hield, Garrett Temple, and Carter already providing steady wing depth.
The remaining projects include sophomores Skal Labissière, Papagiannis, and Richardson, who all split time with the Reno Bighorns last season but expect greater roles this year. Second-round pick Frank Mason III, a point guard out of Kansas, may likewise benefit from D-League experience. While they may face an uphill battle for floor time among a developing roster, the internal competition is sure to bring out the best in every player.
A Hopeful Future
With their young talent finally receiving the minutes and guidance they deserve, Sacramento will ultimately exceed expectations and overcome their playoff drought — if not this year, then at least in those to come. Vegas odds predict the Kings will win just 28.5 games this season, tied with Phoenix for last in the West and down three to four games from 2016-17.
While a bet of 30 wins is probably the most accurate forecast for the team this year, Sacramento could reasonably meet a floor of 26 or a ceiling of 45; with a roster comprised of ten relative unknowns, anything is possible. Regardless of their final record, the upcoming 2017-18 NBA season will provide a much-needed opportunity for growth in Sacramento, thus suggesting a hopeful future ahead for the Kings.
All statistics courtesy of Basketball-reference.com
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