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2018-19 Season Preview: Stocks Rising In Sacramento

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

After years in the cellar, the Sacramento Kings might finally be figuring it out

After finishing in the league’s cellar last season, the Sacramento Kings have stormed out of the gate in 2017-18 with the most unexpected start in the NBA. As one of the youngest teams in the league, Sacramento appears, thus far, to finally have started reaping the benefits of its years wallowing in the draft lottery. While the playoffs are still too much to ask for in the deadly Western Conference, there might finally be light at the end of the tunnel for the franchise with the NBA’s longest active playoff drought (12 years).

Last season, the Kings were simply dreadful in almost every facet of the game; the team was dead last in points per game (98.8) and pace (94.9), while finishing 29th offensively (103.7) and 28th defensively (111.1). The Kings signed veterans George Hill, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph last offseason to bring in leaders for their young roster, though only Randolph remains on the roster. After struggling to find an identity last season, the young Kings squad appears to be playing a more cohesive brand of basketball this season.

 

One of the most important players for the Kings is Buddy Hield, the centerpiece in the February 2017 DeMarcus Cousins deal. He had been touted as a Steph Curry-like sharpshooter, and this season’s start has cemented the comparison; in his eight starts, Hield has averaged 18.9 points and 2.4 assists, on an outstanding 44.7% from three-point range and 52.2% overall. Helped by his height, Buddy is also fifth in the league in rebounding (6.1 per) among guards. Although he might regress during the grueling NBA schedule, Hield’s sweet jumper would indicate his hot shooting is not an aberration.    


The Kings’ major free agent acquisition this past offseason was forward Nemanja Bjelica, formally of the Minnesota Timberwolves. After three middling seasons with the T-Wolves, Bjelica seems to be putting together a breakout season—in an admittedly small sample size. Previously averaging about six points per game in Minnesota, he’s averaged 15.1 points and 6.5 rebounds in a career-high 27.5, while shooting 54.5% from the arc and 58.2% from the field. Most helpful to the Kings’ offense, his ability to stretch the floor has opened driving lanes for Hield and sophomore guard De’Aaron Fox. 

 

Speaking of Fox, the former Kentucky guard has thrived thus far in his second season in Sacramento. Scouted as an athletic, slashing guard, Fox has shown those attributes to great effect during the Kings’ four-game win streak. In more than 30 minutes a game, he has averaged 17.5 points and dished out 6.9 assists per game. He has also stood out in these eight games for his ability to attack the paint; Fox has averaged 6.8 free throw attempts per game, and is tied with LeBron James for fourth in the league in attempts. Unfortunately, he has only hit on 63% on his FT attempts. Coupled with a 21.1% average from behind the arc, De’Aaron could certainly improve on his outside shooting to round out his skillset.

 

The Kings’ young big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Marvin Bagley III have also been instrumental to the team’s early success. In Cauley-Stein’s fourth year in the league, he has averaged a near double-double with 17.4 points and 9.0 rebounds as a starter. Rookie Marvin Bagley has provided a spark off the bench with 12.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 1.3 blocks. Both players are viewed as major building blocks, and they’ve played like it so far. Sacramento was criticized for passing on Luka Doncic, so Bagley’s development is a storyline to keep an eye on.

 

The starkest difference between last season’s offensive failures and this year’s success is pace. Pace is up league wide from 97.3 last season to 101.6, and the Kings have drastically upped their transition game as well. Last year, the Kings posted 94.9 possessions per game (last in the NBA), and this season, they’ve jumped to 107.2 possessions per (second in the league). While their defense is still porous (20th in defensive rating), their run-and-gun offense has helped them defeat their opponents in high-scoring shootouts. However, their lack of defensive intensity does not bode well for long-term success.

Although most observers pegged the Sacramento Kings to once again finish at the bottom of the standings, they have come out strong to start 2018-19. Their current four-game winning streak is already longer than any such streak last season, and their young core is thriving by playing at a faster pace. Is this taste of success sustainable? Probably not. Their shooting from deep will likely cool (currently third in the league at 49.8%), and the long NBA season will take its toll on even the youngest legs. After a number of lost seasons, it is refreshing to see that the Kings really look like they have a solid foundation to build on now. 

Edited by Emily Berman.

SQuiz
As of the start of the 2018 season, when was the last time the Sacramento Kings won a playoff series?
Created 10/31/18
  1. 1998-99
  2. 2008-09
  3. 2000-01
  4. 2003-04

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