People used to think Willie Cauley-Stein could be the perfect player for the uptempo system Kings general manager Vlade Divac has implemented in Sacramento, a 7-foot center who runs the floor with quickness, agility and spectacular aerial ability.
He was a basketball blue blood, the sixth pick in the 2015 NBA Draft out of Kentucky. The upside was enormous. If only he was a better shooter. If only he was a more aggressive rebounder. If only he was a more willing shot blocker.
If only he was more like Dewayne Dedmon.
There were more heralded centers on the free-agent market but perhaps none who fit Sacramento’s style more completely than Dedmon, who went undrafted out of USC in 2013. He’s 7 feet tall and 245 pounds. He runs the floor, rebounds, blocks shots, catches lobs at the rim and has emerged as one of the NBA’s best 3-point shooters at his position over the past two seasons.
“That’s how I like to play,” Dedmon said.
The Kings showed interest in free agent Al Horford and were linked to trade talks with the Houston Rockets for Clint Capela. Either would have been an interesting stylistic fit in Sacramento, but those deals weren’t going to materialize and the Kings were highly intrigued by Dedmon, who came at a fraction of the cost on a three-year, $40-million contract.
Both sides felt they got a good deal. Both sides believe they found an ideal fit.
“I had my free agency meeting with my agent and he broke everything down, talked about the teams and whatever, and Sac came with the best offer,” Dedmon said. “Best fit, best offer, everything was good, and it’s somewhere I can call home for the next three years, hopefully.”
Dedmon, 29, who didn’t play until college, also noted the rapid growth of De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles III, younger players who seem to be flourishing with the Kings.
“You see how the young guys are being developed,” Dedmon said. “You see the jump De’Aaron Fox had from Year 1 to Year 2 was very impressive, the way Buddy came in and he started developing, getting better. Bagley has improved. Harry Giles has improved.”
Players and coaches around the league have noticed. The Kings improved from 27 wins in 2017-18 to 39 wins in 2018-19, their best season since the team’s last playoff appearance in 2005-06. The daunting task of competing in the Western Conference could make it difficult to end that playoff drought next season, but the Kings gave themselves a chance by adding Dedmon, Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza and Richaun Holmes to their young core.
Dedmon gives the Kings everything Cauley-Stein gave them and more. Dedmon proved he could run the floor over the past two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, who led the league in pace, finishing just ahead of the Kings. Dedmon ranks well above average – and in some areas among the league leaders – in defensive rebounding, block percentage, field-goal percentage defense, transition scoring and scoring around the basket, but most fascinating is his emergence as a perimeter shooter.
Dedmon grew up in Lancaster, about 70 miles north of Los Angeles in the western Mojave Desert. His mother wouldn’t allow him to play sports, fearing they would interfere with his religious devotion. After turning 18, he joined the basketball team as a senior at Lancaster High School but didn’t play meaningful minutes until his freshman year at nearby Antelope Valley College.
Dedmon attempted only four 3-pointers in two subsequent seasons at USC before the Golden State Warriors signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2013. He missed the only 3-pointer he tried in his first four NBA seasons with the Warriors, Philadelphia 76ers, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs. Up to that point, Dedmon had made his way on hustle and energy, rebounds and putbacks, but then-Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer encouraged him to shoot when he got to Atlanta in 2017-18.
“He told me he wanted me to shoot 3s, go 12 games, see what happens and we’ll reevaluate after 12 games,” Dedmon recalled. “Well, they were going in, so there was really nothing to evaluate. Ever since then, it just took off from there.”
Dedmon made 133 3-pointers in two seasons with the Hawks. He shot 35.5 percent on 141 attempts from 3-point range in 2017-18. He increased his volume and percentage last season, shooting 38.2 percent on 217 attempts.
Cauley-Stein made only four 3-pointers in four seasons with the Kings and often struggled with 15-foot jumpers. Even he is impressed with the array of skills Dedmon brings to Sacramento.
“I think it fits better for them in that role for what they want – shooting 3s, rim protecting, all that,” said Cauley-Stein, who signed a one-year minimum deal with the Warriors after the Kings made him an unrestricted free agent. “Obviously, they felt I didn’t do a good job at it. I think (Dedmon) is one of the good ones in the league who does that, so for them I think that’s a big-time move.”
Dedmon’s shooting ability could unlock another dimension in Sacramento’s offense with increased spacing and dangerous shooters all over the floor. Coach Luke Walton promised the Kings would shoot a lot of 3s next season. That could be a problem for opponents.
Buddy Hield shot 42.7 percent from 3-point range last season and broke Damian Lillard’s NBA mark of 599 3-pointers over his first three years in the league. Harrison Barnes (.408), Nemanja Bjelica (.401), Dedmon (.382), Fox (.371) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (.360) are proven 3-point shooters. Bagley shot 39 percent after the All-Star break as a rookie.
Cauley-Stein could have been the perfect center for Sacramento’s run-and-gun game, but that opportunity belongs to Dedmon now.
“I like to get up and down the floor and shoot 3s,” Dedmon said. “It’s definitely something I look forward to. That fast pace, getting up and down the floor, running, catching lobs, shooting some 3s, it’s going to be fun.”