One quarter of the NBA season has been completed, which means the Kings are 21 games into their first legitimate rebuilding phase since the late 1990s.
So how are they doing?
The 6-15 record sums up their progress nicely. When they play with pace, energy and enthusiasm, they are entertaining even when they lose (see Clippers game). But too often the effort has been uneven, and with coach Dave Joerger going deep into his roster, fatigue is not a legitimate excuse.
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Start with that, then. Effort, energy, intensity, enthusiasm. While wondering when the Kings will start to establish an identity, here is a progress report on the opening weeks, with each player evaluated in the context of age, experience, expectations.
Bogdan Bogdanovic, SG, SF – Bogi isn’t spectacular at any one facet of the game, but he brought the complete package with him from Serbia. He is converting 90 percent of his free throws, is a better 3-point shooter than the stats suggest (32.7 percent), moves without the ball, scores on a variety of jumpers, bank shots, dunks and floaters, and is a physical defender who disrupts in the passing lanes. His passing, though, has been a revelation, with more playmaking to come. Grade: B
Vince Carter, SG, SF – Unfortunately, the half-man, half-amazing highlight reel has looked all of his 40 years. He front rims most of his jumpers, has trouble finishing at the rim and lacks the hops to pester defensively. His shooting percentages (25 percent overall, 26 percent from 3) are ghastly, though they might improve with more playing time. Since his return from his episode with kidney stones, Joerger seems willing to oblige. But is this really wise? Minutes that go to Carter don’t go toward developing the youngsters. Grade: D
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, PF – A few weeks ago, Trill would have been dinged for his usual inconsistency, failure to finish strong at the rim, lackadaisical defense, poor rebounding. But while a heavy dose of caution is warranted, the third-year player is starting to showcase a nice mid-range touch, deft passing (3.9 assists over 48 minutes), active defense and a willingness to pursue rebounds (6.2 per game). He. Has. The. Skills. The question is how bad does he want it? Two weeks does not make a career, but he is working harder than in the past, and if his recent ascension continues, he becomes an important piece of the reboot. Grade: B-
De’Aaron Fox, PG – The No. 5 overall draft pick is 19 years old, and like most teen rookies, is far from a finished product. He is learning how to use his devastating speed and quickness on both ends, can be too casual with his cross-court passes, needs to become a more consistent playmaker and, for whatever reason, is not pressuring opposing ballhandlers as frequently as anticipated. Defense starts at the front, remember. But this is a special talent. He is a clever, at times spectacular, scorer at the rim and is shooting his mid-range jumper with increasing confidence. Both his 3-point attempts and efficiency (only 8 of 29) will increase when he gets stronger and physically matures. There is a lot to like in this 6-foot-3, 175-pound youngster. Grade: B
Buddy Hield, SG – The second-year guard acquired in the DeMarcus Cousins trade has found his niche as the Kings’ primary scoring option off the bench. The club’s best shooter (44.3 percent from 3), he is most effective in catch-and-shoot situations and on backcuts for dunks and layups. He still gets in trouble when he tries to create his own shot and dribbles into a crowd, but he is playing with more discipline, his defense has improved and he remains a tireless worker. Grade: B+
George Hill, PG, SG – The cerebral veteran is a puzzle. He has converted 45.8 percent of his 3s and a very respectable 44 percent from the field. But on many nights he appears so passive, failing to play with force at either end, one wonders if he is playing hurt. He says he’s not and attributes his slow start to the contrasting offensive philosophy between the Kings, who want to push pace, and the more methodical, ball controlling Utah Jazz team he played for a year ago. Whatever. He is a highly skilled player who is paid $19 million to figure it out. And while his presence at the two spot takes some of the pressure off Fox, a higher motor would be welcome. Grade: C-
Justin Jackson, SF – The former Tar Heel has been a starter, been benched for multiple games and, as of Tuesday, sent to the Kings’ G League affiliate in Reno. He is caught in the squeeze at the wing positions, but he also needs to play and also needs to work on his shot. At this level, he projects as a “3-and-D” player – someone who defends the perimeter and knocks down 3s. Though he has had his moments, he is shooting 40 percent overall and 32 percent from deep. So the Bighorns it is. Grade: C-
Kosta Koufos, C – Except for his recent troubles catching passes and converting chippies, Kosta is Kosta. He defends the interior, collects rebounds (5.9 in a mere 19 minutes), runs the floor, sets screens and is a gem in the locker room. But don’t be surprised if general manager Vlade Divac trades him before the February deadline for a number of reasons, including the glut of big men, his favorable contract ($8 million this year) and his value to a contender. Meantime, Cauley-Stein loves playing alongside the guy. Grade: B
Skal Labissiere, PF – Skal’s game remains ill-defined, and after a strong finish a year ago, he is off to a disappointing, foul-plagued start. Is he a post player? A stretch four? Will he ever be strong enough to defend opposing power forwards? The plan is to move him out of his comfort zone (low post), where his moves are robotic and slow to develop, and out on the floor to capitalize on his feathery jumper, rim running and athleticism. Grade: C-
Frank Mason, PG – The Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma is the early steal of last summer’s draft, but the Kings’ second round pick (34th overall) is thrusting himself into the conversation. Yes, he is only 5-11. Yes, he struggles against longer, quicker opponents. But the former Kansas Jayhawk is a natural playmaker, a bruising, in-your-grill defender and is shooting 50 percent beyond the arc. Poised and polished – you can tell he spent four years in college – Mason will have a long career in this league. Grade: B
Georgios Papagiannis, C – Incomplete.
Zach Randolph, PF – Z-Bo leads the team in toughness and scoring (12.9 points), and is tied for second in rebounding (5.9). When the Kings need a bucket, they often rely on his muscular presence in the post. But at 36, he doesn’t play fast, has trouble finishing when he becomes fatigued and labors as an interior defender. So where is this going? On a team that wants to run, this is an odd piece unless his minutes are restricted and he is surrounded by wings and guards. Grade: B-
Malachi Richardson, SG, SF – Incomplete.
Garrett Temple, SG – It’s hard to believe Temple bounced around the league as long as he did (six teams) before emerging as a solid role player with the Washington Wizards. He is the Kings’ best defender (12 steals), is converting 40 percent of his 3s, plays multiple positions and gives an effort every night. Grade: B
Coach Dave Joerger – The Kings did the right thing by picking up the final year of his contract (2019-20), affording him some security amid the rebuild. Significantly, he and Divac agree on a desired style – with pace, passing, body movement, defensive tenacity – and his offensive creativity, in particular, has been evident. But this is a tough job. Joerger at some point has to decide whether to fully commit to the youngsters, thereby risking the ire of his veterans, or waste valuable time that could be spent teaching and developing.
The biggest issue, though, is instilling a greater sense of urgency regardless of who plays and who sits. The intensity level simply isn’t high enough on most nights, as reflected in the stats. The Kings rank near the bottom in 3-point defense, defensive rebounds and rebounds per game – all hustle indicators. Offensively, they are among the worst in points scored, field-goal percentage and assists. But, hey, it’s early. Grade: B