As the recruiting process accelerates and the NBA draft on June 26 approaches, the Kings have more studying to do than a recent law school graduate preparing for the bar exam. Even with the drought, the questions are coming in waves:
Who do they want to be? What is the grand plan? Is there a specific system – another franchise, say, the San Antonio Spurs – to emulate? A preferred style of play that will influence their wheelings and dealings on draft day and beyond?
The first year of the Ranadive regime consisted primarily of tearing apart a roster while laying the foundation for a downtown sports and entertainment complex. Now comes the hard part. The second season should offer a glimpse into the future and into just how quickly the Kings can overcome their toxic one-on-one, dribble-dominant, isolation-game mentality and morph into an appealing product.
Faster is better, of course. That new arena won’t open until 2016. But there are only three courses of action available – the draft, trades, free-agent signings – and the annual selection process is a doozy. Eye candy is not always what it appears. The Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA draft lottery last year and drafted UNLV’s Anthony Bennett.
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The Kings dropped to No. 8 this season, and lucky them, but it’s crazy out there. Team executives are en route to Europe and elsewhere overseas. Scouts keep digging deeper into backgrounds. Players are shuttling between franchises for visits that leave them stressed and exhausted.
“You try not to get overwhelmed by one workout,” Kings assistant general manager Mike Bratz said after the first session Monday that featured Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart and Indiana center Noah Vonleh. “It’s a small piece. I’ve seen these guys play many times. But someone can open your eyes and you might take a little deeper look at them.”
These current Kings want passers and shooters. They want to play faster and defend more effectively. The plan consists of acquiring a distributor, re-signing Isaiah Thomas (in the $5 million-to-$6 million range annually) and convincing him to accept the role as sixth man, which explains why Smart was sure to be among the early invitees. Never mind that he is the top-rated point guard and probably unavailable when the Kings pick at No.8; they can hope.
“There’s a lot to like about Marcus Smart,” Bratz said. “Having lived in Texas the last 14 years, I’m very aware of him. He’s a very, very impressive kid. Physically tough. Mentally tough. And skilled. You don’t see many kids like him come out.”
Though Smart measured a bit shorter than expected at the predraft combine, at 6-foot-3¼, he weighs 227 pounds and has the thick, bruising frame of a linebacker. His massive wingspan also enhances both his attack-the-rim offense and his passion for physical defense.
But this should sound interesting and cautiously familiar: His perimeter shooting is inconsistent, partly because of poor decision-making, and he is regarded as more of a scorer than pass-first floor leader. He returned to Oklahoma State for a sophomore season, he said, to improve his jumper and refine his playmaking skills.
“If somebody got hot, we had a tendency to watch and see what they were going to do next,” Smart said. “One reason I went back was to learn the point-guard position a lot more, control the sport, learn to take control.”
Asked about the possibility of directing a team anchored by center DeMarcus Cousins, Smart smiled and seemed intrigued.
“I could see myself fitting very well,” he said. “Somebody without personality is like talking to a tree. You don’t want to sit there and talk to a tree or play with a tree for hours. You want somebody that makes you laugh, keeps things spontaneous …”
For the foreseeable future, no conversation about Smart can end without mention of his three-game suspension for shoving a Texas Tech fan he accused of shouting a racial slur. Smart declined to offer details, other than to say he has put the matter behind him.
Bratz was more expansive, even protective.
“He’s a top-of-the-line kid,” he added. “We asked him about it in the interview. He was very forthcoming. That’s something he would probably take back. (But) you put yourself in that situation, who knows how you might respond? I don’t know any team that will use that against him.”