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Recapping the highs and lows of the Kings season so far

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Through 21 games of basketball the Kings have been frustrating at times and fun in others. That’s life as a rebuilding team.

Kimani Okearah

We’re a little over a quarter of the way through the NBA season now and the honeymoon phase of the offseason has ended with reality settling in. There have been some highs, but a lot of lows, and that’s likely to continue throughout the rest of the season. That being said, I thought I’d offer some early observations on the Kings so far.

The Kings are a terrible rebounding team

This is perhaps not unsurprising but it is a fact that almost every single night the Kings are getting outrebounded. They have the third worst defensive rebounding rate in the entire league and are only marginally better (21st ranked) on the offensive glass. Losing a rebounding machine like DeMarcus Cousins hurts, but the entire team is full of subpar rebounders. Kosta Koufos and Buddy Hield(!) are the only players rebounding at a high rate for their position. Zach Randolph, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere are all about average to below average rebounders so far this season, and with Randolph playing a lot of center, he’s facing a lot of bigger and quicker competition. I don’t see this issue getting better over the course of the season unless a trade happens.

Sacramento’s Free Agent Signings haven’t panned out ON the court

The Kings only brought in three free agents this offseason (not including Bogdan Bogdanovic) and all were meant to not only bring veteran leadership but a stabilizing presence on the floor: Zach Randolph in the frontcourt, Vince Carter on the wings and George Hill in the backcourt. Randolph is probably the closest to playing to expectation, leading the team in scoring with 12.9 points on decent 47.2% shooting. However his defense has been lackluster and his presence on the court necessitates the young and fast Kings to instead play slower. Vince Carter has been having the worst year of his career, which maybe shouldn’t have been so surprising given the guy is almost 41 years old.

But it’s been George Hill that has been most disappointing, with Sacramento’s $20 million man disappearing for games at a time. Hill is averaging just 9.1 points and 2.4 assists a game, the lowest numbers of his career since his rookie season. His overall efficiency has taken a hit as well, although it’s gotten better as of late with his move to shooting guard. But Hill was supposed to come in and be this team’s best player. Instead he’s been outplayed at times by the team’s two rookie Point Guards, and he’s been far too passive. Part of that has to do with the team’s makeup and scheme, but Hill has to do a better job of asserting himself as well.

All that being said, the vets seem to be doing a good job off the court with the young guys, as they’re frequently mentioned as positive influences and you can see them offering advice or support on the bench during the telecasts.

Frank Mason III has been Sacramento’s best rookie Point Guard

This isn’t so surprising to me. Despite drafting Fox with the 5th pick, I imagined he would struggle a bit as a rookie without a consistent jump shot while Mason has four years of college experience at a high level and a fearless mindset to fall back on. Mason didn’t play much in the first ten games of the season, but since Fox has moved to the starting lineup we have seen Mason quarterback the second unit and be very effective doing so. Mason’s fearlessness in attacking the basket and making smart plays for both himself and his teammates have been key parts of Sacramento’s recent success (if you can call 3-4 in the last 7 success).

Meanwhile Fox has fallen down to earth a little bit after a good start to the season. Teams are scheming for his speed and lack of a shot a little more, and playing with the slower starting unit doesn’t give him as much opportunity to utilize his strengths. He’s now shooting sub-40% on the year and that probably won’t get a whole lot better, at least this year. The good news is that the Kings appear to be set at Point Guard for the near future, with both Fox and Mason showing signs of being good players.

Bogdan Bogdanovic and Willie Cauley-Stein have great chemistry

Bogdan has taken a little bit to get adjusted to the NBA game but he’s been much more comfortable recently, both as a scorer and a playmaker. Bogdanovic is only averaging a couple of assists a game but almost half of those are going to Willie Cauley-Stein. According to NBA.com, 18.5% of Bogdan’s passes are to Willie Cauley-Stein, the highest percentage on the team. Cauley-Stein for his part feeds him right back, with 20.1% of Bogdan’s passes received being from Willie. The two have been connecting on lobs seemingly every game.

Given that the two have been playing together for barely even two months, it’s encouraging to see this kind of chemistry already developing between two players who figure to be part of Sacramento’s long term plans.

Skal Labissiere still needs a lot of work

In the post-DeMarcus Cousins era of last season, the biggest surprise was the emergence of Skal Labissiere. Labissiere couldn’t even get on the court at all the first part of the season but when given time he seemed to thrive thanks to a soft shooting touch and a huge wingspan. There was hope that in his second season he could become a more featured part of the offense but so far that hasn’t come to fruition. Skal has struggled a lot more this season, with his FG% down to 44.0% after shooting 53.7% in 33 games last year. He was probably due for a regression though, as he shot a ridiculous 52.1% from 10-16 feet and 57.9% from 16 feet to the 3 point arc last season. That’s completely unsustainable and this year he’s down to 42.4% and 36.7% from those areas respectively, which make up about half of his shots.

Skal also struggles with a lack of a refined post game. He hasn’t been able to take advantage of mismatches in the post and doesn’t possess as soft a touch on his hooks as he does with his jumper. There’s also the fact that Skal isn’t a great passer in a system in which the bigs are given a lot of responsibility for moving the ball. The only player on the entire team with a lower assist rate than Skal at 5.9% is Justin Jackson’s 3.6%.

Kosta Koufos has been playing great

I feel a little bad for Kosta Koufos because he didn’t sign up to be the backup center on a rebuilding squad. Even still, despite limited minutes he’s playing his ass off each game. He’s the only Kings player to be rebounding at a high level, he’s making 55% of his shot attempts, he sets good screens and he usually guards the opposing team’s best big man whenever he’s on the court. He doesn’t complain and he doesn’t demand more touches. Koufos is in the last fully guaranteed year of his contract and could opt to become a free agent this summer. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s some interest this year in teams wanting to trade for him. Every team could use a backup big like Kosta Koufos.

Garrett Temple is Garrett Temple

Speaking of guys that everyone wants on their team, how about Garrett Temple? I don’t think anyone is surprised that Temple is playing exactly as we’d expect him to. He’s probably taking a few more off the dribble shots this year than I’d like, but other than that he’s still playing great defense and he’s hitting his threes at a career-high rate while shooting more than ever. Like Koufos, Temple also has a player option for next summer. We’ll see what he opts to do but if there’s one vet on this team that I’d like to stick around, it’s Temple.

Buddy Hield loves the bench

Hield was supposed to come into the season and lead the Kings in scoring, but in the first seven games of the season as a starter, Hield was really struggling to get a rhythm and was only scoring 10.3 points on an abysmal 35.4% from the field and 22.6% from three.

That all changed once Dave Joerger made a lineup change and moved Buddy to the bench. Since then, Hield has been averaging 13.1 points on 50% from the field and 58.3% from three. His shooting has been so good that even when he doesn’t have the ball he’s still got a gravity to him that opens things up for other players.

Hield has also expanded his game a little bit to become a bit more than just a scorer. He’s got a 16.4% defensive rebound rate, a fantastic rate for a guard, he’s also passing the ball more and playing tougher defense. He’s doubled his steal rate from last year as well and leads the team in that category. Right now the Kings seem to be playing their best players from the bench, and maybe they should try putting those guys in the starting lineup (Mason, Buddy, Bogdan, Willie, Koufos) and seeing how they do from the start.

On the outside looking in

The Kings have so many young players that they can’t even play them all. Right now that’s the case for Malachi Richardson, Justin Jackson and Georgios Papagiannis. Jackson has gotten the most time out of that group, even starting for the first several games, but it’s clear he has more work to do especially on becoming stronger and more consistent as a shooter. The Kings are fine with bringing along Papagiannis slowly with trips to the G-League but Malachi Richardson just hasn’t been able to really find a niche here. He’s a pure scorer who can’t seem to score on a consistent basis, not a great combo. He has had a little opportunity but hasn’t made the most of it yet.

We’re not even including Harry Giles here, who has yet to make his debut after the Kings decided to hold him out until at least January. We’ll see if he even plays this season but he has been going hard in practices by all accounts.

Going Forward

The Kings are bad, but I’m still having a good time watching the team this season. Willie Cauley-Stein seems to be taking a step forward as of late and I’ll be keeping an eye on him to see if he can sustain it over a longer period of time. The rookies have all flashed some potential, and this team has (generally) been competitive at home, which is a nice bonus for those of us who trek our way downtown every so often to watch. I’d like to see De’Aaron Fox get back to his more aggressive playstyle from the first ten games of the season and for Skal Labissiere to find his groove. In the next couple months we could see some trades, but the Kings shoudn’t be looking to make any short term moves at all and I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see much go down this year after the craziness of last year.