The timing of Chimezie Metu’s signing with the Kings this season couldn’t have been more ironic. After being a numbers casualty in training camp, Metu’s two-way contract was announced during the fourth quarter of the team’s season opener, while Richaun Holmes and Marvin Bagley were both in the process of fouling out.
Metu obviously couldn’t play that night as the Kings lost one big man after another, but his arrival in Sacramento has still come at an opportune moment. The Kings only have two men they’re committed to right now in Holmes and Bagley, and beyond them, Metu will have a chance to crack the rotation. His first turn came over the past five games with Hassan Whiteside sidelined, and the early returns were promising.
This isn’t to say that Metu is meaningfully contributing to winning; after all, this is a player who has spent the majority of his professional career in the G League, and Sacramento went 1-4 over this past stretch. But the outlines of a useful rotation player are there, and those flashes have come increasingly frequently.
“He’s done some nice things,” head coach Luke Walton said about Metu after practice Tuesday. “He plays with an edge and he plays with a force that we really like, as far as you know, some of his rolls, some of the dunks, some of the blocked shots he had. We think Mezie’s going to be a very solid player. He’s young, he needs experience, he needs some time, but he’s an extremely hard worker, the coaching staff loves having him around, his teammates love him being out there, so he’s doing everything he can.”
One of my favorite things about Metu is his ability to play in transition. Unlike Whiteside, who propels the break by creating stops with blocks or defensive rebounds, Metu actually runs the floor with his teammates. That means he can back up the play when the first option fails, and he’s a good finisher at the rim. There haven’t been too many examples of him in transition defense, mostly because he’s the last line of defense if he’s at the rim when the play begins, but he still commits to running the floor to attempt to catch up to the play.
Much like the other young players on the Kings, it helps Metu to play fast because he can rely on his athleticism and instincts rather than having to read the floor. He scores on the first possession in this clip after a make because Buddy Hield pushes the tempo. On the second, Metu backs up Glenn Robinson III to finish the play.
In the halfcourt, Metu is still learning the nuances of what he needs to do. The Kings run lots of pick-and-roll with him, but his screens don’t exactly create an advantage for the ball handler. He often slips instead of making contact, and that short circuits the whole play. His screens will improve as he gets more reps with his new teammates, as some of his failures have just been about timing. For example, Metu was whistled for an offensive foul in a recent game because Hield moved before the big was set. That’s the kind of detail that should get ironed out with more familiarity.
Metu also likes to roll to the free-throw line instead of all the way to basket. He has tremendous confidence in that midrange jumper or long floater despite making just 3-of-10 shots in that range thus far outside of garbage time. If he can turn more of those short rolls into passes instead of jumpers, the Kings could create higher-quality shots. Metu could also just dive all the way to the basket, where good things happen because he is a strong finisher at the rim and he has a quick second jump, which allows to him to also get putbacks. His gravity also makes it easier for his teammates to score, like it does for Tyrese Haliburton in this clip because Jaxson Hayes has to account for Metu.
Defensively has been more of a mixed bag, and Metu’s teammates certainly don’t do him any favors. The Kings have been lacking in their point of attack defense, so he has to deal with a lot of penetration. Even when he makes the right read to cover the driver, the help often doesn’t come, leaving an easy pass open under the basket.
But Metu also has his own shortcomings. As with many athletic bigs, he likes to chase the highlight play, leaving his feet or his man for a spectacular block and compromising the base defense in the process. His foul rate of 7.8 percent is about as poor as it gets among bigs. Metu actually has looked better switching than playing in a drop because that allows him to focus on one player in isolation, and he’s quick enough to hang with perimeter players.
Whiteside has been trying to help Metu with his understanding of defense, mostly by learning what individual players like to do.
“I think with Mezie, I’ve just been just talking to him and just giving him the tendencies of guys,” Whiteside said Tuesday. “I think staying down, a lot of times when you’re trying to block a shot, I think he’s been jumping and fouling a little too much. These guys are crafty, you know, and I think just getting into knowing guys’ tendencies. Like when we played the Bulls, you know, Zack LaVine like to go right, left, he’ll right, left and then he’s jumping. So, just knowing what the guys like to get to, you know, and that’s one of the things I’ve been talking to him about.”
The crown jewel of Metu’s play so far has been his shot blocking in help defense. He can rotate in a heartbeat and he has the hops to contest anything at the rim. Metu even had one possession when he denied two consecutive Portland dunk attempts, the first one coming against former King Harry Giles III.
The final two blocks came against the Knicks, the first time that Metu has played in a Kings win this season, and Whiteside noticed some improvement from the third-year big in that contest.
“I think last game was probably one of his better ones,” Whiteside said. “I think he made a couple steps from when we played New Orleans (Jan. 17). But you know it’s a process.”
Despite an encouraging stint over the last five games, Walton made it clear that Metu has not displaced Whiteside as the backup center. “We’re gonna go back to Hassan first,” Walton said, “but we feel confident that whether in foul trouble or, you know, something else happening that he can fill in again and he can help us if his number gets called.”
It may not be a rotation role yet, but at least it’s a step up from being glued to the bench in competitive games. And with the Kings committed to developing their young players this season (at least outwardly), Metu has made his case as one of the players that the team should invest in.