This time of the year can be tricky when evaluating NBA talent.
About half the league is preparing for the playoffs while the rest of the league is looking forward to the draft lottery. Losing teams are positioning themselves (some would say tanking) for the best odds at a high pick.
Sometimes when two losing teams collide, it can look a lot like glorified summer league.
That doesn’t mean the Kings can’t benefit from these games.
If Saturday’s loss to the Los Angeles Lakers is an indication of how the rest of this season will go, the youngest Kings will have the most responsibility. That’s been the plan for more than a month, but injuries made coach Dave Joerger rely on his veterans longer than planned.
With this plan in motion, here’s what the Kings (18-41) need to see and evaluate from five of their key young players over the final 23 games.
De’Aaron Fox – The growth in Fox from the start of the season is undeniable and the rookie’s confidence is unshakeable. He’s shown more flashes of the aggressive defender the Kings saw at Kentucky, too.
Fox has to continue to progress as a shooter. He’s shooting 60.6 percent in the restricted area of the paint this season. That drops to 30.8 percent in the non-restricted area of the paint.
Teams will continue sag off and dare him to shoot away from the rim. Fox is confident in taking those shots, he just has to start making them with more regularity.
Justin Jackson – The rookie from North Carolina’s best work might come in the offseason, when he can add more strength to his lanky frame. Even though he’s overpowered in many instances, that hasn’t stop Jackson from showing flashes of being a willing defender.
Because he’s not a primary option on offense, he’ll have to do that, along with rebounding in addition to making open shots. Jackson is the only young wing with the height to become a player who will impact bigger small forwards or stretch power forwards. So even if he’s not scoring, he can play a big role.
Frank Mason III – Finally over a heel injury that kept him out nearly two months, Mason will need to find his groove. He’s already one of the toughest players on the team who carries himself with a quiet confidence.
Mason was still learning how to navigate life as a smaller player in the NBA when he was injured. There were times he’d drive too deep into the paint and get stuck without an outlet.
In two games since returning, he has eight assists and no turnovers in 29 minutes, so he’s already showing he learned from some of his mistakes earlier in the season.
Skal Labissiere – There were times late last season Labissiere looked great, but that success in these late-season games did not translate into his second season.
Labissiere’s progress can’t be measured by just points as his second NBA season winds down. The Kings need to see him progress as a defender, which is a big reason why he didn’t play more earlier in the season.
That means showing the versatility to defend on the perimeter in addition to navigating life in the paint.
Harry Giles – The forward from Duke remains the Kings’ great unknown outside of the practice facility. Kings’ coaches, players and executives rave about Giles’ potential.
The rest of the basketball world will not see Giles until summer league in July, so Giles has to stick with the plan that’s been in place since he was drafted and continue to study the game.
If Giles is what the Kings hope he will be, they believe they’ll essentially have two lottery picks on the team next season because Giles could be that good.
The Kings spent most of the season with the worst point differential in the NBA. Sacramento is at minus-7.9, still not good but no longer the worst in the NBA entering Sunday.
That distinction belongs to the Phoenix Suns, who are at minus-8.9.
Stopping the 3-point shot remains a problem. The Kings gave up 17 made 3s the Lakers on Saturday, the fourth time this season they’ve allowed that many in a game. Sacramento gives up a league-high 12.3 made 3s per game.
Following Monday’s home game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Kings on Tuesday visit Portland, where they’ll see Damian Lillard again.
The last time they faced the Trail Blazers’ All-Star point guard, he scored 50 points in three quarters in a 118-100 win Feb. 9 at Golden 1 Center. Lillard shot 16 of 26, including 8 of 13 from outside the arc, and made all 10 of his free throws.