This Kings team is a work in progress that will require patience from an already beleaguered fan base, but the early adversity they are facing will provide an immediate test of Luke Walton’s leadership and coaching acumen.
Walton’s first training camp with his new team was disjointed and difficult. Twenty-hour flights to and from India took a toll, costing the Kings precious practice time. Several players were stricken by minor injuries and illnesses. Then prized young power forward Marvin Bagley III broke his right thumb in a season-opening 29-point loss to the Phoenix Suns, sidelining him for four to six weeks just as the Kings were trying to integrate him into the starting lineup.
Some people are blaming Walton for letting Bagley play in the final minutes of a blowout loss. Walton knew the game was unwinnable at that point, but the work the Kings are doing now isn’t about one game or even one season.
“Marvin is a huge part of our future, so we’ve got to get the time and the reps with him,” Walton said Friday before the Kings suffered a 122-112 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers in their home opener at Golden 1 Center. “But to speak on who Marvin is, he fractures his thumb two days ago and he was at shootaround today, in the weight room, running sprints with our strength coach. He’s going to do everything he can possibly do to stay in shape and even get better. I’ve already informed him that I want him sitting next to our coaches during games so he can talk to them about what he sees and (we can) continue to coach him.”
This isn’t a coach who’s freaking out over unforeseen circumstances. It’s a man with a plan, speaking plainly with the same mellow demeanor he has exhibited since taking this job in April.
Whatever happens – whether the Kings find themselves in playoff contention this season or not – Walton, 39, will keep communicating with his players and urging them to communicate with each other. He’ll continue to implement his offense. Above all, he will continue to stress how imperative it is for this team to get better defensively after allowing 246 points in the first two games.
“I can tell you, honestly, the coaches really did a great job to prepare us for these games,” Kings guard Bogdan Bogdanovic said. “They are unbelievably helpful to us. These two games, nothing to say, but it’s on us, the players.”
Kings guard Buddy Hield agreed, saying the players have to work harder, play smarter and find a way to win.
“We’ve just got to want it more,” he said. “Defense is all about heart and playing hard. … Guys got to want it more, coverage and communication, all that. That goes a long way in this league and if we want to be a good team, we’ve got to be at our best, communicating, rebounding, all that stuff.”
These are Walton’s words coming out of Hield’s mouth. The coaches are talking. The players are listening. The message is received.
“The coaches have been positive about everything that we’ve been going through,” Bagley said. “We had a tough training camp, flying across the world to go play, coming back, a lot of traveling so far, but it’s been exciting and the coaches have been there, positive from the jump, and they’re continuing to do what they do best to try to lead us the best way they can, and we just try to follow.”
Walton subjected himself to criticism in the first two games when he left some of his young stars on the floor in the final minutes of their losses to Phoenix and Portland. Bagley suffered a non-displaced fracture of his thumb against the Suns. Point guard De’Aaron Fox went down with a hip injury against the Trail Blazers and was listed as questionable going into Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz.
Bagley’s injury was especially disconcerting, causing many fans to fear the team’s playoff hopes had already evaporated. The criticism is fair and valid, but Walton’s explanation is understandable, too.
“We need to keep working,” he said. “… We’ve got five games in the first eight nights to start the season. Where we’re at as a group, and a new group, trying to really grow and nurture a lot of these younger players, we’ve got to use games to do that as well.”
Walton isn’t making excuses. Neither are his players.
“We weren’t the only team that traveled to India,” Fox said. “We weren’t the only team that traveled overseas for the preseason. We’re not the only team that’s dealing with injuries, so it’s something you’ve got to push past.”
So now they move on, talking, listening and learning, trying to establish rhythm, continuity and good work habits no matter how long it takes.
“We’re honest about everything,” Walton said. “We’ve got to get a lot better. We know it takes time. There’s no magic behind it. It’s hard work. It’s cleaning up fundamentals. It’s getting repetition at what we do. We want to be able to recognize what defenses are doing, and read and react, and all these things take time.”
Read and react doesn’t sound as simple as run and gun. This might explain why the Kings’ offense hasn’t looked as fast and fluid as it did last season under former coach Dave Joerger, but you can’t blame Walton for wanting to get his system implemented now, starting with the basics.
The Kings will get faster and more fluid on offense. The defense will improve. The question is whether Walton can bring this team together quickly enough to salvage the season. That test is already underway.
Sacramento Kings schedule
Oct. 26 at Utah Jazz
Oct. 28 vs. Denver Nuggets
Oct. 30 vs. Charlotte Hornets
Nov. 1 vs. Utah Jazz
Nov. 3 at New York Knicks