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Vlade Divac bets big on his young core

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The Kings’ free agent acquisitions were all signed with the kids in mind

Kimani Okearah

With potentially over $60 million in possible capspace this offseason, the Sacramento Kings could have easily chosen a different path. They could have chased splashy names, shelled out money in the name of “talent,” or used their space to take on salary in exchange for draft picks. But Vlade Divac’s moves placed the fate of the franchise solely on the youthful shoulders of his core, particularly De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III.

Fox and Bagley are the two most talented players on the roster; its not delusional to see both make an All-NBA team someday. But if the franchise ever wants to become relevant again, the Kings will need each to elevate the other, and the fit between the two can be tricky. Fox was most effective in pick-and-roll in his breakout season, but he needed both floor spacing (with Nemanja Bjelica at power forward) and a rim-running roll threat at center (a role filled by Willie Cauley-Stein) to unlock his talent. Meanwhile, Bagley flashed his scoring skills in all kinds of playtypes, particularly showing a knack for scoring around the rim.

Ideally, Bagley is Fox’s rim-running partner; the question is, at what position?

Slotting Bagley into the center position next to Bjelica opens a host of concerns at the defensive end. For all his faults, Cauley-Stein’s understanding of the defensive system, rotations, and communication still made him a more effective defender at this stage of his career than the neophyte Bagley. Entrusting Bagley to anchor the Kings’ defense in a season where they want to take concrete steps forward is risky; they can’t afford any steps back if they want to keep rising up the ranks of the Western Conference. Bagley would also suffer a lot of wear-and-tear defending the center position full-time, which would require him to tango with behemoths like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Karl Anthony-Towns in the low post. Night-in and night-out, the center position is the most physically grueling of all in today’s NBA. Bagley may be most effective at the center spot, but the Kings need a safety net to allow him to develop there at his own pace and keep that mileage off his legs so he can be at his best for the most important stretches of the game.

On the other hand, enlisting Bagley at power forward next to a traditional center is a clunky fit. Bagley’s three point shot is promising but unproven; NBA defenses are likely to sag off of Bagley in order to clog the lane against Fox. Pushing Bagley out to the perimeter also neuters his prodigious talent scoring in the paint. And when Bagley does try to venture closer to the rim, his frontcourt partner’s defender will be right there next to him mucking things up.

Divac’s elegant solution comes in the form of Dewayne Dedmon. As the headline signing this offseason, Dedmon essentially lets Bagley play center on offense and power forward on defense. It’s the best of both worlds for Bagley and it sacrifices nothing from Fox’s game.

As Sanjesh wrote about last month, Dedmon is an athletic stretch center shooting 38% from three point range on respectable volume. Dedmon’s eFG% overall on catch-and-shoot jumpers is 54.4%, and he can hit threes anywhere, shooting 36% above-the-break and over 40% from both corners. On offense, Dedmon can easily replace Bjelica’s production at the power forward spot, spacing the floor for Fox/Bagley pick-and-rolls and Bagley’s post-ups. If Bagley develops a reliable three-point shot, the Kings’ offense becomes even more versatile; the Kings can have Bagley spot up and Dedmon roll to the rim, let Dedmon spot up and Bagley roll to the rim, or even go five-out with Dedmon and Bagley spotting up from three while Fox can take his man to the basket against a completely clear paint.

Importantly, Dedmon is a solid defender at the center position. Listed at 7’0 and 245 pounds, Dedmon has a good frame to handle the behemoths centers must contend with nightly. Opponents shoot 5% worse than average against Dedmon at the rim, and only 11 other players have ever matched Dedmon’s combination of block and steal rates. Dedmon also sports a respectable 22.9% defensive rebounding rate, which ranks in the 67th percentile.

Dedmon checks all of the boxes: he allows Fox and Bagley to be the best versions of themselves, he’s a significant defensive upgrade over Cauley-Stein, and his 3 year, $41 million deal doesn’t break the bank for the Kings. Although he’s not an All-Star talent, he can facilitate the Kings’ rise up the Western Conference ranks.

Divac’s other acquisitions follow the same philosophy. Trevor Ariza’s signing came out of nowhere, but he’s a terrific addition to the Kings’ paltry wing core. Ariza’s size and length at the small forward position lets the Kings trot out a smallball unit with Harrison Barnes at power forward and Bagley at center; the shooting, speed and athleticism of that look can give opponents fits. Cory Joseph is a solid backup point guard with the size to defend either guard spot. His defensive prowess relieves pressure on Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic so the two sharpshooters can focus on offense. Richaun Holmes’ relentless motor will nip at Harry Giles’ heels in fighting for a spot in the rotation and in practice. The Kings were also reportedly interested in Al Horford, who basically brings everything Dedmon offers with an All-Star pedigree. In short, all of Divac’s moves this offseason were geared towards helping the kids succeed.

The front office showed a commendable amount of dedication to stay the course. I’m sure it was extremely tempting to abandon the plan for a short-term splashy move. The Kings could have hedged their bets on Fox by, say, pursuing D’Angelo Russell. They could have went after Julius Randle in case Bagley fails to live up to expectations. They could have thrown a massive offer at Nikola Vucevic who would eat up shots the young guys would otherwise have. They didn’t. Given a chance to change course, Vlade instead showed faith in his core, and with no more capspace flexibility for the near future, there’s no turning back.

Now it’s up to the young guys to reward that faith. Fox and Bagley can reach the highest heights this league has to offer; its time to realize that potential. Hield and Bogdanovic can bombard defenses focusing on Fox and Bagley with their firepower and smart playmaking; its time to show deep this roster’s attack can be. Giles is the ultimate X-factor, and now he has the time behind Dedmon to develop at his own pace; its time to seize his chance. They have all the organizational infrastructure they could ask for to succeed; its time for them to lift the franchise out of the cellar.