Ailene Voisin

It’s proving time for the Kings’ youth. Here’s what will make or break them

Kings guards De'Aaron Fox, left, and Bogdan Bogdanovic defend Utah’s Ricky Rubio as he drives to the basket at Golden 1 Center on Wednesday in Sacramento.
Kings guards De'Aaron Fox, left, and Bogdan Bogdanovic defend Utah’s Ricky Rubio as he drives to the basket at Golden 1 Center on Wednesday in Sacramento. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Kings are locked in an intense battle for the worst record in the league, the Feb. 8 trade deadline is approaching, and with general manager Vlade Divac committed to a youth movement, the older veterans might want to start collecting those empty boxes.

 
Opinion

Reports indicate the Cleveland Cavaliers are interested in George Hill, while the contracts of other Kings veterans also could prove tempting to playoff-bound franchises. There will be a lot more to say about who stays, who goes, who plays in the coming weeks, but meanwhile, the Kings continue plodding their way closer and closer to favorable NBA draft lottery positioning.

Entering the weekend, they ranked last in defensive rebounding, opponent’s field-goal percentage, opponent’s 3-point percentage, point differential, points per game, and were near the bottom in several other significant statistical categories, including pace (26th).

With the second half of the season just underway and coach Dave Joerger planning (his words, not mine) to turn the kids loose, here is a look at the Kings with three or fewer years of experience, and what the folks who spend their evenings at Golden 1 Center would like to see before all eyes become riveted on those lottery pingpong balls.

Bogdan Bogdanovic

In a relatively short period of time – thanks partly to his professional experience overseas – the rookie from Serbia has adapted to American culture, the speed of the NBA game, the grind of an 82-game season, and emerged as a player Joerger describes as “a playmaker who can score.” But the two-way guard also hits 3-pointers, moves without the ball, cuts backdoor for layups, throws terrific entry passes, is a physical, willing defender, and has an intuitive feel for the game. An argument can be made that he is the most complete NBA player out of Serbia to date and deserving of consideration for NBA All-Rookie Team honors. He is a natural leader who likes to run, which is what the Kings should be doing more of these days. Don’t stop now, Bogi.

Buddy Hield

The second-year shooting guard has been in a mini slump from 3-point range (8 for 25 the last six games), and his unforced turnovers, usually ballhandling errors, can make you flinch. But he is a much improved defender, decent rebounder, relentless competitor, and he can surprise with an occasionally nifty pass. Buddy at his best, though, sets his feet and strokes textbook jumpers in rhythm. Not this year, but in the near future, he will be competing for the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award.

Willie Cauley-Stein

Particularly this past month, the one-time prep wide receiver has shown off an impressive and expanded offensive repertoire. He was right all along; he is more than just a garbage man around the basket. His mid-range jumper is sweet, he is finishing through contact more consistently, finding teammates with crisp, fundamental passes (2.2 assists over 26 minutes per game), and when he gets out in the open court, few 7-footers are more fun to watch. The next phase of his development is to secure double-digit rebounds every night and become a more committed interior defender. That wingspan, footspeed and athleticism are gifts that shouldn’t be wasted.

Skal Labissiere

After a strong finish to his rookie season, the second-year power forward often appears overly scripted and confused, almost robotic in his movements. The Kings are urging him to move away from the basket and use his high-arching jumper, first step and explosiveness, and to stop holding onto the ball while debating between low post moves. His defensive struggles are more concerning. He isn’t quick enough to guard small forwards nor strong enough to contain power forwards, but if he is to become a reliable stretch four, he will have to figure it out. Meantime, the only person not pulling for the bright, immensely likeable Skal – the self-nicknamed “One Big Haitian” – might be that guy in the White House.

De’Aaron Fox

So you think it’s easy to be a 20-year-old starting NBA point guard? One night he scores 12 points on 4-of-9 shooting, passes for five assists, and pushes the pace against OKC, the next night he manages six points, misses 5 of 6 shots, fails to drive and attack, and watches fellow Utah Jazz rookie Donovan Mitchell blow past him for a spectacular dunk. Underneath those long twisted locks, Swipa’s head must be spinning. That said, since his return from a quad injury, he is trying to play faster and think less, setting up teammates more efficiently, taking open shots, and more often using his quick hands and defensive instincts to harass opposing ballhandlers. Besides improving from beyond the arc (29.5 percent from 3), he needs to become a floor leader and cut down on the terrible turnovers. But he can be electric; his sprinter’s speed and array of moves around the basket are a blast.

Frank Mason III

The NBA can be hard on 23-year-old point guards, too. Before being sidelined with a partial tear of his right heel, the the 5-foot-11 rookie was immersed in a profound slump. His perimeter shooting was shaky (38 percent overall) and he persisted in dribbling into the lane against multiple defenders, which resulted in an inordinate number of missed layups and blocked shots. Somewhat surprisingly, his floor game declined as well. Unlike performances early in the season, he too often looked to score when he should have been directing and distributing. Unfortunately, the foot injury will keep him out for a while, precluding him from the chance of a quick bounce-back.

Justin Jackson

Almost a year removed from winning the NCAA championship at North Carolina, the 6-foot-8 rookie has been a victim of the numbers game, a skinny frame and lack of strength, and most notably, the inability to convert open jumpers. Small forwards have to score. Period. Yet Jackson misses too many clean looks from the wings and short corners (38.1 percent from the field and 31.2 percent from 3) and hasn’t compensated in other areas. It will be interesting to see what happens if he receives more consistent playing time and Fox and Bogdanovic generate opportunities for him in the open court.

Georgios Papagiannis

Instead of shuttling Jackson and Papagiannis between here and Reno, Divac will keep them with the Kings and monitor their progress for the duration of the season. Even though the game is moving away from conventional big men, at the least, Papagiannis remains intriguing. The 7-foot-1 Greece native has lost a ton of weight and added some definition, which figures to improve his less-than-optimal footspeed. During his few appearances, he has shown a soft touch, a touch of nastiness underneath, and excellent hands. We want to see more.

Malachi Richardson

Of all the Kings, he has probably been hurt most of all by the crowded backcourt and dearth of minutes. And while he hasn’t impressed when given opportunities (32.5 percent from the field, 32.4 from 3), shooters in particular feel pressure to contribute quickly when playing time is sparse. With Bogdanovic and Hield established at shooting guard, Richardson should probably keep his fingers crossed and hope he is included in a trade.

Ailene Voisin: 916-321-1208, @ailene_voisin

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