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A New Hope is Dawning

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Instead of slapping together whatever roster they can around DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings are assembling a core of young talent.

Kimani Okearah

Note: This article was composed prior to last night’s game, so statistics are reflected as of 3/12.

The Empty Era

For too many years, false hope has plagued Kings fans. Each season, ownership has tried to cram the unrealistic expectation down the masses’ throats that the playoffs are within reach if things simply break the right way. “No, everyone, these are are the right veterans and coaches that we need around DeMarcus Cousins, not those very similar, also under-talented guys of last year.” Rajon Rondo simply needed another chance. Marco Belinelli was the final shooter we needed to help the offense run perfectly. Derrick Williams was a freak athlete who could play any position! Matt Barnes will be a mentor. Caron Butler has been there, done that. The list goes on and on and on. All that we needed to happen was our star to play like a superstar, our starters to play like All-Stars, role players to play like starters, and end of bench guys to perform like role players.

The clearance aisle level of talent swapped in and out each offseason and trade deadline simply needed to fit perfectly within whatever random strategy the new coach would be employing and the city would unlock each player’s potential. Kings fans have been conditioned to constantly look for steals in the market, but they’ve only walked away with disappointments. The realization has dawned that an item may not cost very much because it’s just not very valuable. The only diamond in the rough that was ever unearthed, Isaiah Thomas, was let go for a pittance.

The issues haven’t just been in acquiring end-of-bench role players and rundown veterans. Drafting young, affordable, developing talent has also been an almost impossible task for this organization as well. Over the past 11 years, Sacramento has had a total of 22 draft picks. Out of those, only two have made All-Star teams: DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas. In the four drafts after selecting potential cornerstone DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings top 10 picks yielded Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, and Nik Stauskas. Constant busts and wasted picks have caused Kings fans to have a very real and justified distrust of draft picks and youth.

A New Hope

Now, for the first time in many years, the Kings are actually going through a proper rebuild. Things are different, or at least we hope them to be. The organization doesn’t have any terrible, desperate contracts on file, the asset cupboard is actually in decent shape and stocked fairly well, and we have a solid coach who should be with us for the long-term. Buddy Hield, Skal Labissiere, Willie Cauley-Stein, Malachi Richardson, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and the three rookies who will be added on draft night now make up the future of this franchise.

As the community has noticed, these new young guns are nothing like the disappointments of old. Not only are our rookies and second year players performing at a high-level, but they’ve actually begun to outplay their veteran counterparts as well.

Buddy Hield

After being salivated over by fans and ownership alike on draft night, Buddy was the marquee piece in the still controversial DeMarcus Cousins trade. The Bahamian Baller played pretty well for a new player to the league in New Orleans, but his contributions in Sacramento have been better than even the most optimistic fan could have hoped for.

Per Game

Team MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Team MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Pelicans 20.4 8.6 39 37 2.6 1.4 0.3 0 0.8
Kings 25.9 13.9 52 51 2.9 1 0.7 0 2.8

Per 36

Team MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Team MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Pelicans 36 15.1 39 37 5.1 2.4 0.6 0 1.5
Kings 36 19.3 52 51 5 1.4 0.9 0 3.9

Not only has Buddy Love shown his ability to be a deadly scorer in the league, but his efficiency has been off the charts since donning a Kings uniform. To put it another way, if Hield had performed at this level all season, he would absolutely be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year.

Not everything has been perfect for the scoring machine though. Buddy’s defensive effort is hit and miss and his ceiling on that end of the court doesn’t look all that high. Turnovers are also an issue as he’s shown a carelessness with the ball that needs to be corrected. His handles aren’t the issue as much as ball-control and decision-making. This offseason, fans should hope that Joerger and his staff make these two areas of opportunity focus points in his development.

Not only has Buddy played well in his stint with Sacramento, he’s been their best wing option. Garrett Temple has been injured and Ben McLemore has begun to disappear from the rotation again, so Arron Afflalo becomes the best veteran comparison for the rook. The statistics used are for both players post-All Star break, so they are on the same team with the same coaching staff and same opponents.

Per Game

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Hield 25.9 13.9 53 51 3.4 1 0.7 0 2.8
Afflalo 28.5 11.2 44 54 2.7 1.2 0.5 0 0.3

The per game numbers show an pretty large gap in abilities between Afflalo and Hield. Arron is an off the ball cutter and post-up man while Buddy is a spot-up shooter and slasher. The differences speak even louder on a Per36 basis.

Per 36

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Hield 36 19.3 52 51 4.8 1.4 0.9 0 3.9
Afflalo 36 14.1 44 54 3.4 1.5 0.6 0 0.4

Once again, Hield shows himself to be the more prolific scorer despite being a rookie on a brand new team with only a few practices under his belt. Buddy’s struggles with turnovers reveal themselves in an even clearer fashion, but the past few games have also seen a major drop in giving up the ball. In his first 6 games with Sacramento, Hield coughed up the rock an average of 3.33 times per game; however over the past 3 contests, he’s averaging a much more manageable 1.66 per game. Obviously, that’s about the smallest of small sample sizes, but turnovers are also something he’s addressed specifically in post-game interviews, so let’s hope that trend continues. Also to note, Afflalo has shot a scorching 54% from three point range while Buddy has also been on fire from deep with 51%, but the rookie takes a whopping 7.5 attempts per 36 minutes while the vet only takes 2.7.

Willie Cauley-Stein

There was a point early in the year in which terms like “bust” and “lazy” were being thrown in Cauley-Stein’s direction, and frankly, they were justified. The concerns started in Summer League and continued their way fairly deep into the season. His lack of hustle and defensive ownership caused him to fall out of the rotation at times and there were two separate instances throughout the year in which he was benched for multiple games in a row.

Someone, somewhere threw the “good Willie” switch late in January and he’s been solid since. He’s scored in double figures in 13 of the past 22 games and has looked like a completely different animal. The Kings’ second-year big man looks engaged on both ends of the court, is beginning to show of a tiny bit of a nuanced post game, and has gained the full trust of the coaching staff. Cauley-Stein is averaging 32.7 minutes per game since the Cousins trade, which is good for highest on the team.

Early in the season, fans justifiably stressed about the two center lineup and although Boogie is gone, Joerger still loves his twin towers pairing as WCS and Koufos have shared the court a ton. While Buddy Hield has clearly been better than Afflalo, Kosta and Willie are a much closer comparison.

Per Game

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Cauley-Stein 32.7 13.3 47 0 6.4 2.1 0.9 0.8 1.8
Koufos 25 9.3 48 0 8.1 0.6 0.3 0.7 0.9

Per 36

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Cauley-Stein 36 14.6 47 0 7.1 2.3 1 1 1.9
Koufos 36 13.3 48 0 11.3 0.8 0.4 1 1.3

The biggest knock on Willie continues to be his rebounding. In the same 22 game stretch in which he’s scored in double digits 13 times, he’s only claimed 10+ boards in three games. His passing and overall offensive contributions have continued to grow, but Cauley-Stein must become a more dominant rebounder to be a regular, above-average starter in the league.

Skal Labissiere

Skal Labissiere is the last, unopened, almost forgotten present at the end of Christmas morning that turns out to be tickets to an all expenses paid trip to Hawaii. He’s the $20 bill found in the pocket of a rarely worn coat for a poor college student. He’s the rare Kings prospect that is actually showing a lot of promise.

Early in the season, Georgios Papagiannis was the mysterious, high first round pick that no one knew anything about, Malachi Richardson got some early burn and showed some potential, and Isaiah Cousins actually played a position of desperate need but wasn’t even on the roster. Skalifornia Lovin’ (Ed. Note: We’re sorry about the puns) simply represented a low-risk prospect at the end of the first round who was slotted behind Cousins, Casspi, Tolliver, Barnes, Cauley-Stein, Gay, and Papagiannis on the depth chart. His underwhelming freshman season, drop in value on selection night, and immediate relegation to the D-League caused him to be semi-forgotten by many, myself included. We tracked his progress on the Reno Bighorns and hoped he would contribute in the coming years, but no one expected a ton from him this season.

Now, Skal is competing with Buddy as the brightest bit of hope for the future and shows a new side of his game almost every night. His recent play has excited and encouraged fans across the globe and his potential seems almost limitless. He’s developed a silky smooth shooting stroke, he plays with an intensity and passion rarely seen by young players, and his height and athleticism are simply cherries on top of the delicious sundae that is Skal Labissiere.

According to the Skalculations (Ed. Note: Really sorry) below, Labissiere has been a much more productive player than Tolliver since the All-Star break. It’s not even close.

Per Game

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Labissiere 15.1 8.2 58 0 5.4 0.6 0.4 0.3 1.4
Tolliver 22.6 5 32 31 3.7 1.7 0.2 0.2 1

Due to his limited minutes during games (which should be increased soon) and the favorable matchups that Dave Joerger seeks, I used a Per 24 calculation for Labissiere’s and Tolliver’s projected statistics to keep the numbers more realistic.

Per 24

Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Player MPG PPG FG% 3P% RPG APG SPG BPG TOV
Labissiere 24 13 58 0 8.6 0.9 0.6 0.5 2.2
Tolliver 24 5.3 32 31 3.9 1.8 0.2 0.2 1

Skal is better in pretty much every category than Tolliver. Essentially, if AT isn’t hitting his three point shot, he’s fairly useless on the court. On the flip side, Skallelujah (Ed. Note: Oh come on) adds value on the defensive and offensive ends of the floor, as well as in rebounding. In the future, Skal’s focus on tracking down every loose ball could be a great pairing with Cauley-Stein’s rebounding troubles.

The Future

There are still many questions swirling around ownership and management when it comes to leadership, character, ability, and consistency, but the young talent on the court is showing promise that we haven’t gotten to enjoy in a long, long time. The losses are going to pile up, draft position will replace discussions about playoff hopes, and there will be many bumps along the way, but we can rejoice in the hope that is finally finding its way into this tortured fan base.