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Do the Sacramento Kings finally have a young core they can build around?

Buddy Hield Bogdan Bogdanovic De'Aaron Fox

The Kings are counting on the trio of Buddy Hield, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and De’Aaron Fox to lead them out of NBA purgatory. Can they do it? (Photo: NBA/Getty Images)

Tanking season is in full, avert-your-eyes effect in the NBA, and teams are spiraling downward quicker than my journalism career. (Sorry, my therapist told me to express my feelings).

There are some big prizes to be had in this year’s draft, and once again teams are falling all over themselves–pretty much literally–for the chance to employ a franchise-changing player.

The Sacramento Kings have been in rebuild mode since Peja Stojakovic was in uniform, and things are no different this year, as they’ve got the third-worst record in the Western Conference at 22-47.

Still, Sacramento, maybe more so than any other lottery-bound team, appears to have its future foundation in place.

The Kings have a bunch of guys who were taken high in the draft, from De’Aaron Fox to Willie Cauley-Stein and Buddy Hield, and others like Bogdan Bogdanovic, who was drafted with the 27th pick by the Suns in 2014, but has balled out like a lottery pick in his rookie year in the NBA.

You can’t say that about say, the Grizzlies, who went full “Trust the Process” mode after Mike Conley went down, or the Hawks, who would have had a tough time winning the SEC this year.

So, how much of a chance do the long-suffering Kings have of rising from the depths of irrelevance?

How good of a job has Vlade Divac done in piecing together a cohesive squad whose individual talents complement each other?

Let’s break it down, with the help of Sactown Royalty writers Sanjesh Singh and Akis Yerocostas:

De’Aaron Fox

The 20-year-old rookie has shown flashes of brilliance, from his spectacular, game-winning dunk in Miami to a 26-point performance in which he went 6-for-6 from 3 in San Antonio in January, to Wednesday night, when he hit the game-tying runner in another Kings win over the Heat.

Head coach Dave Joerger has put the ball in his hands with the game on the line on a number of occasions, and he’s responded, showing that toughness and cockiness necessary to be the man in the big moment.

Still, Fox was left off the roster for the Rising Stars Game, and his offensive numbers aren’t jump-out-of-the-screen impressive. He’s averaging just 11.6 points, 4.4 assists, and 1 steal per game.

If you go by per-36 minutes stats, which eliminate some of the outliers from the average, those numbers look like this: 15.1 points, 5.8 assists, 1.3 steals.

Fox is shooting 41.3 percent from the floor and 33% from 3, and there’s no doubt that he needs to improve his shot. He could also stand to get stronger, and be able to attack the rack with authority and cash in on his quickness and finely-tuned Eurostep game with points at the line.

NBA/Getty Images

Sanjesh says: “I would give Fox an A- at most. It seems like forever since the Kings actually hit with their first pick in the draft, and Fox has clearly been a hit since day one. Fox definitely has a plethora of places where he can improve, but I want more consistency out of him.

One game he will be all over the floor, impacting in a variety of ways. Next game, he won’t be producing as much. He is still a rookie after all, but next season is really where we need to see consistency out of Fox. As for my expectations, they have been high for him from the start. He was great in college, and he will continue to improve professionally. We’ve seen what Fox can do and if he keeps working to get better, look out.”

Akis says: “De’Aaron gets a B from me this year (and an A+ in clutch situations).  We’ve seen flashes of excellence, and he’s clearly improved as the season has gone along.

However, he’s far from a finished product and will definitely need to keep working on getting his shot more consistent, as well as his assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive effort.

Fox has all the tools to be an excellent two-way player in this league and my hope is that he can figure it out sooner rather than later. Offensively, his game will really open up once teams start having to respect his shot.

Unlike some players who come into the NBA that are known to be bad shooters, De’Aaron doesn’t seem to have broken mechanics to me.  He just needs repetition and tweaks and I think he can be a good shooter, maybe not a great one, but a good one, in the near future.

Of all the players currently on the Kings roster, Fox is the one that I’d most bet on becoming a star.  He has that potential, we’ll see if he gets there.”

Justin Jackson

Justin Jackson

Jackson has shown some promise, but has room to grow in a lot of areas. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The star 2-guard on North Carolina’s championship team has been underwhelming as a 22-year-old rookie this season. The Kings grabbed him with the 15th overall pick in the first round (via a trade).

Jackson’s biggest problem is that he’s a shooting guard who can’t shoot–he’s at 30% from three for the season, and 43.7% overall. His per-36 minute numbers look better (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.7 apg) but he’s averaging just 6.3 ppg in 20 minutes per game for this team.

He’s had flashes–like a 19-point game against Philly in November and a 15-point performance against OKC on March 12.

Jackson has the requisite size and athleticism to become an excellent player, but he struggled with his shot at UNC, and has been worse this year. If he can figure it out though, the rest of the tools are there. He’s the prototypical 2-guard, and has great length and quickness, and could turn out to be a diamond in the rough.

Akis says:  “I think the biggest thing for Justin Jackson is that he needs to get stronger.  He’s 6’8 and got nice length for an NBA wing, but right now he’s rail thin and it’s hard for guys that skinny to keep up with NBA players.

I’ve also noticed that his shots, particularly from range, tend to either go in or come up short.  It took him a while to become a consistent three point shooter in college, and I think it will take another adjustment period for him with the NBA three point line but I think he can figure that out.

He plays with a lot of effort and he has a good understanding of how to move without the ball.  But he also doesn’t rebound or pass particularly well for a wing.

Next season will be an important development year for Jackson, but right now it’s too early to say if he will be anything more than a role player, and that’s probably his ceiling.”

Bogdan Bogdanovic

Some Kings fans believe Bogdanovic has what it takes to become a star. (Getty Images/Rocky Widner)

The 25-year-old Serbian sharpshooter has had some big games, and that’s been enough to make Kings fans believe that the sky is the limit for this rookie.

He’s averaging 11.7 points, 3.4 assists, and 2.9 boards per game, but has posted five 20-plus point performances, including a career-best of 25 on 6-for-6 shooting from 3, and 9-for-11 overall against Utah in January.

Bogdan is shooting 39.3% from three for the season and 45.4% overall. The trade to get him, in which the Kings sent Marquese Chriss to Phoenix and also ended up with Skal Labissiere, looks like an absolute steal by Vlade.

Sanjesh says: “He can also be a special player. Superstar? Who knows, but he has star written all over him. Him and Fox make for one young and dangerous combo in the starting backcourt.”

Akis says: “Bogdan has been excellent this year and one of the better rookies in the NBA.  At times, he’s been Sacramento’s best player. However, bear in mind that Bogdanovic is more NBA ready than most players. He’s 25 (and will be 26 going into next season) and has spent years honing his game at the professional level already. I don’t see a future superstar in the making, but I do see a very good rotation player who can do a little bit of everything. Bogdan can shoot, pass, defend and he should be a valuable starter for years to come.”

Willie Cauley-Stein

Cauley-Stein needs to be more consistent. (NBA/Getty Images)

The 6th overall pick in the 2015 draft hasn’t quite lived up to his billing yet, averaging 12.5 points, 7 rebounds and less than a block in 27 minutes per game in this, his third season. He’s had some monster nights, like 23 and 13 against the Clips on 1/13, and 26 and 10 at Utah on 1/17, but hasn’t played with consistency.

Sanjesh says: “Cauley-Stein is another player that can play a big role for this team going forward. He’s a young center that fits into the team’s young foundation, not to forget that he doesn’t face much competition to lose his starting spot.

He’s another player that needs to show consistency and to make good decisions. Sometimes, he will be wide open for a mid-range shot (which he has shown that he can make), but instead tries to drive inside to force a tougher, contested shot. Other times, he’ll simply miss easy looks.

He averages around 50% shooting overall, which isn’t very high for a center. But if you look at his shooting stats per game, you’ll see why.”

Akis says: “I’ve gone back and forth with Willie a lot.  He’s a perplexing player, a guy with so much talent but also a lack of consistency.  He also doesn’t like to be labeled, and even though he was drafted so high because of his defensive potential, he seems to be more focused on improving himself offensively and hasn’t really made great strides on the other end.

Now to be fair, Willie has improved his offensive game greatly since coming into the league, but his focus seems to fluctuate throughout the season.  Can he stay motivated? Can everything click?  Those are questions that would bother me if I was the Kings, having to decide if he’s a long term piece going into what will be his contract year next season.”

Buddy Hield

Photo Courtesy: Sacramento Kings

Buddy struggled to find his way as a rookie in New Orleans, and the hype that surrounded him after he won National Player of the Year honors and carried Oklahoma to the Final Four in 2016 seemed to fizzle out quickly.

But since arriving in Sacramento as part of the DeMarcus Cousins trade, he’s begun to grow. Hield shot 48%, including 42.8% from three, in 25 games last year, and is shooting 43 and 41% respectively, this season. He’s yielded his starting spot to Bogdanovic, but has provided a consistent scoring spark off the bench, and has posted eight 20-plus point games, including a 24-point performance on Wednesday against Miami.

Sanjesh says: “I really like Buddy Hield. He is a pure shooter and can come off the bench and give you points when you need it the most. He will be a valuable asset in the backcourt moving forward.”

Akis says: “Coming into the year I thought Buddy was going to end up being the team’s leading scorer for the season.  He ended his rookie year on a roll, becoming Sacramento’s go-to guy down the stretch after the DeMarcus Cousins trade.  It hasn’t really worked out that way, and Bogdanovic has supplanted Hield in the starting lineup, but Hield is still a valuable player.  He’s easily the best shooter on the team, and one of the best shooters in the entire league already.

He’s also made strides when it comes to his ballhandling and defense this year.  Buddy can be a great 6th man in this league, and he probably has the work ethic to be even more.  Buddy has a reputation as a gym rat, and that’s a great quality. I really look forward to seeing how his third season goes.”

Skal Labissiere 

The rail-thin 21-year-old has missed time with injuries, but has shown the promise that made him the No. 1 recruit in the nation coming out of high school in 2015. He’s a walking, breathing double-double in waiting, and has put up stat lines like 17 and 15 (against Charlotte on 1/2) and 12 and 12 (Utah, 3/3). He’s raw on offense, but at 6-11, plays like a wing, has a good-looking jump shot, and has the ability to score down low.

His range should continue to improve with time, as should his strength–he needs to hit the bench press a little bit more, so he can finish at the rack amongst the braun that greets you there in the NBA.

Labissiere also has the fluidity of movement and intelligence to become more of a threat on the wing, and to grow into a better passer. He could be a candidate for Most Improved Player in the next few years, if he can stay on the floor. A development like that would be tremendous for this Kings team.

Frank Mason 

Frank isn’t a guy the Kings are going to be counting on moving forward, but he could earn himself a long-term spot based on the fact that he plays really hard. At 5-11, last year’s college National Player of the Year knows that he needs to bring tremendous effort if he’s going to make it long-term in the league, and he’s done just that.

Mason’s per-36 minutes numbers reveal a valuable player (14.9 points, 5.4 assists, 4.1 rebounds), and even though he hasn’t shot it great from 3 (39 percent), and has somehow been worse overall (37.6%), he’s done a nice job of running the team and providing quality minutes off the bench. His defense has been solid for his size, and his activity and diligence on that end of the floor have served him and the team well.

What is this team’s biggest need going forward?

Akis says: “The Kings biggest need right now is probably at small forward.  Justin Jackson’s really the only true wing the Kings have, as both Vince Carter and Garrett Temple are more shooting guards (and also not part of this team’s long term plans).

The Kings have resorted to small ball lineups with Buddy or Bogdan at the three, but they need a wing with size who can make plays on both ends of the floor.  They were reportedly interested in Otto Porter last summer, and that’s exactly the type of guy that would be a great fit.  Fortunately the draft has a couple wings that could fit the bill this year.”

Sanjesh says: “Positional need is small forward. Jackson still has a way to go as mentioned but small forward is where the Kings lack the most. At other positions they have Fox, Bogi, Skal and Willie, but they don’t have a clear cut small forward.”

Where do you see this team in three years?

Sanjesh says: ” I want this to be competing for something higher than just the eighth seed. I’m not big on tanking and this team has been on the losing side for too long. If they are competing for a 4th-6th spot in the Western Conference, I’d be happy but that could be a longshot.”

Akis says:  “The safe bet, just based on the last decade-plus of being a Sacramento Kings fan, is still on the outside looking in.  That’s the worst case scenario.  The Kings have a strong young core, but this isn’t the first time that’s been said.

But my hope is in three years that at least one of these young guys (if not two) have emerged as stars and are helping the Kings get back to the playoffs, even if it’s as a lower seed.  You have to start somewhere, and the Kings don’t have many ways to go but up.  Hopefully this time is different, but again, not the first time that’s been said.”

How would you evaluate the job Vlade has done at this point?

Has Vlade earned Kings’ fans trust? (Photo: BlackSportsOnline)

Sanjesh says: “I haven’t been satisfied. But with the direction they are going now with all of the young talent, Divac has bought himself more time with this team. Another bad season of “tanking” next year won’t suit the fans well, that’s for sure.”

Akis says: “It’s a mixed bag.  It hasn’t been as terrible as some would lead you to believe, but it hasn’t been good either.  Vlade’s first move was terrible, mortgaging the future for short term gains (which then didn’t pan out).  All that’s left to show from that trade now is Kosta Koufos, as Rajon Rondo and Marco Belinelli have gone away.  Losing Nik Stauskas ended up being no big deal (he has yet to become an NBA rotation player) but losing out on the 2019 pick and having to swap with Philadelphia last year (when the Kings could have had the #3 pick. They might have still picked Fox, but still) right when they decided to rebuild hurts bad.

On the other hand, Vlade has made some good deals as well. The draft day trade with the Suns to send Marquese Chriss to them for Bogdan Bogdanovic, two first rounders and a second ended up being worth it for Bogdanovic alone. His draft record has also been solid aside from a big whiff with Georgios Papagiannis.

I think the Kings did themselves and Divac a disservice bringing someone in with no front office experience to run this team when the future of the franchise around DeMarcus Cousins was in balance, but since then he’s gotten a bit better. Is Vlade the guy long term though? I don’t know. This summer will be huge, and if the Kings don’t make serious progress and really nail this draft pick, I think he will definitely be in the hot seat.”

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