The Kings’ grand plan – it doesn’t need an overbearing title like “The Process” – is to develop the young players and establish a foundation for the future.
And this is great. This is better than great. The days of the ill-fated quick fix are over, as evidenced by the past two NBA drafts, the flurry of trades and a restructured roster that includes nine players with two or fewer years of experience.
But the recent acquisitions of old souls Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and particularly George Hill are welcome and necessary for this reason: You wouldn’t leave your kids unsupervised until they mature into responsible teens or young adults any more than the Kings should toss their youngsters onto the court to be undressed, embarrassed and exposed by stronger, more seasoned opponents.
The upcoming season thus will be a balancing act between allowing the young players to take their lumps, and protecting them from breaking their legs or losing their spirit.
“Compete and mentor,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said Monday, describing the dual nature of the newcomers’ roles. “They’ve got positive voices and they’re not so old that the players don’t remember them playing. Sometimes that happens, young guys come into the league and they’re like, ‘You’re who and you’re trying to tell me what? I’ve never even heard of you.’ But these guys have that relevance.”
Randolph, 36, scored and rebounded in double figures for Memphis last season. Carter, who is a youthful 40, was an off-the-bench contributor a year ago, also with the Grizzlies. But signing Hill was the key move, the one that figures to have more of a lasting effect.
Part of this has to do with age – Hill is only 31 – but even more to do with his role. The nine-year veteran is expected to compete for minutes while tutoring and providing cover for prize rookie De’Aaron Fox, especially against elite point guards Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook, the league’s Most Valuable Player who also happens to be the former Kentucky standout’s favorite player.
Fox, 19, has the speed of a sprinter but the body of a teenager. He is a wiry and slender at 6-foot-3 and 170 pounds. His slight frame notwithstanding, he has not been shy about driving into crowds of taller, thicker defenders at the Las Vegas Summer League. He hits the floor hard, bounces back up, shakes off the dust, just shakes his head.
But an 82-game regular season is grueling even for superbly conditioned NBA veterans. The Kings can ease off the pedal, ever so slightly.
Though grooming Fox as the face of the franchise is a no-brainer – he oozes charisma and star potential – asking him to step into the starting lineup, play extensive minutes, improve his jumper and remain a pesky presence on defense, all while staying healthy, is unfair and unreasonable.
Hence, the importance of Hill. A slinky, long-limbed 6-foot-2 point guard, Hill facilitates an offense, converts open 3s, is an above-average defender and is capable of playing and guarding multiple positions. Not particularly explosive, he favors floaters and crafty, change-of-pace drives to rim-rattling dunks and stickbacks.
His presence immediately eases the pressure on Fox and allows the No. 5 overall pick to develop in his own time, without the burden of a star-starved franchise riding on his shoulders.
“I told him I thought he was the best guard in the draft,” Hill said during his introductory press session. “I thought Sacramento got a steal. What he brings to the game with his speed, he can finish, developing his shot. I’m gonna work with him putting on some bulk, some muscle. He might not get big, but physically strong, wiry strong. I’m just eager to get with him, take him under my wing, try to build something special.”
That Hill bypassed other offers to sign a three-year, $57 million contract with the Kings is a bit of a Brinks job in itself. Though no other suitors offered as generous a salary, the Indianapolis native had conversations with other teams, including a few in the weaker Eastern Conference. Among other things, joining the Kings will dilute his impressive postseason record (eight appearances in nine years) and ensure earlier-than-desired summer vacations.
Still, Hill seems comfortable with his decision. He labels himself a “city guy” who has flourished in Indianapolis, San Antonio and Salt Lake City, three of the league’s smaller markets, and who has made a career flouting conventional basketball wisdom. After emerging as an all-around player in high school, for instance, he rejected offers from several Division I schools and attended his hometown Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).
“I’m not a guy that wants to take the easy route,” he said. “I like the challenge, I like to take the hard road, where no one thinks you can do it. The underdog mentality. A lot of of people were saying, ‘Well, you’re not going to make it to the NBA. You can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ Those were the things that fueled me. I always wanted to prove people wrong. Who knows how long it will take? And maybe people don’t believe it, but I wanted to push the envelope, bring back the Sacramento basketball of Doug Christie, Mike Bibby. At the end of the day, I want to be able to say, ‘We did it.’ ”