It was only the third day of training camp and Kings coach Dave Joerger had already shouted so much that he was held out of the daily media session with strained vocal cords.
“Coach’s voice is gone,” rookie Harry Giles III said. “Coach has been yelling at us all day, two times a day, trying to speed us up a little bit and get us playing fast.”
When Joerger returned with a raspy voice the following day, he was asked about the team’s plan to unleash a run-and-gun game. The organization has committed to a youth movement featuring a collection of young, athletic players eager to push the pace, but there are legitimate questions as to how well the up-tempo style will work.
How much conditioning is needed to prepare the players? Can a team play fast offensively if it can’t slow the opposition on defense? And after finishing last in the NBA in pace last season, how is this team suddenly going to implement an up-tempo style despite adding three more rotational big men, creating an unbalanced roster with seven players at the power forward and center positions?
“We were built a lot different last year personnel wise,” Joerger said.
Point guard George Hill and power forward Zach Randolph, two of the slowest, most methodical players in the league at their respective positions, were both in the starting lineup at the beginning of the 2017-18 season. By season’s end, Hill, 32, had been traded to Cleveland. Randolph, 37, had been relegated to the bench despite leading the team in scoring.
When asked if he anticipated limited minutes for Randolph or a similar role to last season, Joerger said: “No, we’re probably looking at playing the young guys more.”
The tempo will now be dictated by De’Aaron Fox, a 20-year-old point guard widely regarded as one of the fastest players in the league. Fox will run the floor with guards such as Yogi Ferrell, Frank Mason III, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic and long, athletic big men such as Giles, Skal Labissiere, Marvin Bagley III and Willie Cauley-Stein. Each of those players is between the ages of 19 and 26. Free agent acquisition Nemanja Bjelica, 30, is by far the oldest player in the projected rotation.
“De’Aaron will play right from the jump,” Joerger said. “Last year he didn’t have the keys right away, but it’s becoming his team, piece by piece. And when you look at the forward and center positions, we’re lanky, we’re long and we’re pretty athletic, so our strengths aren’t throwing it down there in the post or playing slow. For those guys to be effective, they’re going to have to get out and use their athleticism in transition.”
Fox, the fifth-overall pick in the 2017 draft, said it will be “extremely” disappointing if the Kings don’t pick up the pace.
“We’re athletic, we’re fast and we can get up and down the court,” Fox said. “We want to run teams and wear them down at the end of games.”
The Kings must do something differently. They were 30th in the NBA in scoring, pace and free-throw attempts last season and missed the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year, the longest postseason drought in the league.
One bright spot last season was Sacramento’s 3-point shooting. The Kings shot 37.5 percent from beyond the arc, ranking third in the NBA, but they were 28th in 3-point attempts. They were third in the league in two-point shot attempts but 29th in two-point shooting percentage.
So now they want to run. They want to drive. They want to draw more fouls. They want to shoot more 3-pointers.
“We want to play fast,” Fox said.
Labissiere said the team’s big men are well suited for that style of play despite the perception that the team has gotten bigger during a small-ball era in the NBA.
“We’re all pretty athletic,” he said. “We’re bigs who can switch (on defense), and I feel like, offensively and defensively, we can outrun anybody in the league.”
“They run rim-to-rim,” he said. “If you can run rim-to-rim every game – take no plays off – the other team will struggle to keep up with that.”
To play up-tempo, the Kings must get defensive stops. They know they can’t beat the defense down the floor if they’re always inbounding the ball following a made basket.
“I think that’s the main thing,” Mason said. “It’s stopping the ball.”
Rebound. Pass. Run. Repeat.
“This is how we want to play,” Joerger said. “This is how hard we want to play. We want to be a greatly conditioned team and we want to play fast. Those things become who you are.”
Several players commented on how difficult the team’s conditioning drills were during the first week of training camp. Ferrell, who spent his first two NBA seasons with Brooklyn and Dallas, was asked if this is the most he has ever been asked to run.
“By far,” he said. “This is definitely the most running, but I feel it’s good for us. We’re going to be in shape, we’re going to be ready for the season and we’re going to have some of the most-conditioned bigs in the NBA.”