Kings Stay Kings: Basketball in Sacramento might actually be on its way back

This is probably how it all went down.

Vivek Ranadive watched about ten minutes of an Oklahoma-Incarnate Word game two winters ago. Within that timeframe, eventual National Player of the Year Buddy Hield probably sank three or four transition 3’s. It was at that precise moment the Sacramento Kings’ primary owner and chairman decided the Oklahoma guard was Stephen Curry’s second-coming.

A story like this could be very much believable upon analyzing Ranadive’s track record of asininity since purchasing the franchise. From suggesting the full implementation of cherry-picking basketball, to firing head coach Mike Malone in 2014 due to a slower tempo than his liking and a strong defensive emphasis after what many across the league had considered a relatively promising start to the season for the Kings, Ranadive is the classic case of an excessively-meddling owner. Sports’ most consistent model franchises are highlighted by front office synergy, a Bill Belichick preaching of “do your job and I’ll do mine.” The Sacramento Kings for quite some time now have exhibited the antithesis of synergy, leaving the product on the floor in constant disarray and the organization standing aside the Washington Redskins as the most poorly-run in the four major sports. Vlade Divac, in the end, has perpetually been tasked to bridge the gap between what actually is best for the organization and the farcical demands of his boss. So when the New Orleans Pelicans visited Northern California this previous season, Ranadive’s comment to Hield of how “we’re still gonna get you” was bound to come to fruition. I have long been a vocal critic of Vivek Ranadive and the Sacramento Kings. The engineer/businessman is just a billionaire who happens to like basketball. Ranadive doesn’t actually know basketball. Thus, naturally, the billionaire ego felt mere fandom could translate into personnel decision-making. However, after many trials and tribulations, after the Rudy Gay’s and the Rajon Rondo’s, it appears Ranadive has turned over a new leaf, one marked with the meaning of a rebuild.

Fast forward to this February and an iconic Woj bomb, its subject being the polarizing figure that was slowly tearing the Sacramento Kings organization apart. Ranadive had long vouched for the retaining of DeMarcus Cousins, so much so that it booted George Karl to the curb. What caused the flip of the switch within the owner’s brain remains a mystery. Perhaps a serious talk with his more-informed executives? Maybe simply coming to one’s senses? Regardless, it was a trade emblematic of the beginning of greener pastures. The Kings needed to begin losing basketball games in order to preserve their own top 10 protected pick in the 2017 Draft, and added another in a deep draft in the process. Ranadive, at the end of the day, had to make a decision between his beloved face of the franchise he would have no choice but to resign in the summer while still undeniably crippling his team, or what was, indubitably, in the best interest of the organization. The sought-after commodity the owner swore to acquire was packaged, and an actual optimistic future was sealed in Sacramento for the first time in a long time. Current head coach Dave Joerger owns substantially similar philosophies to Mike Malone, the man he fired just three years prior over purely philosophical differences, another sign of Ranadive’s maturation as an owner. More importantly, the acquisition of Buddy Hield paid immediate dividends, which begs the question: Was he right?

Buddy Hield will never be what Stephen Curry is. He’ll never be able to dice up a ball screen. He’ll never be able to get to the basket off of much more than straight-line rack attacks or cuts. However, the potential remains for Hield to become an elite NBA scorer in the modern NBA, especially with his efficiency in stop-and-pop and shooting on the move, all thanks to a Curry-like quick release. With Hield, as he displayed throughout his final two college seasons and in his brief Kings career, there always lies the threat of the backbreaking quick-hitter three, the weapon the Golden State Warriors have made so lethal. 25 games won’t paint the whole picture, but 48/43/81 and 25 pts/48 minutes is pretty self-explanatory.

Buddy

We’ve seen how Warriors opponents have had to chase Steph off the 3-point line as a transition ballhandler, and it’s obviously a dangerous proposition having to pick up the ball defensively 35 feet from the basket while backpedaling. This brings Hield’s improved facilitation into play. Buddy, though, is far more of a hazard for defenses off the ball in transition. Hield owns an innate ability to sprint to open spots and gather himself in a flash. After fast forwarding another 4 months from the Twitter-rattling trade, Hield’s backcourt mate became a King with the 5th pick in last Thursday’s draft. More than just a backcourt mate, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox is actually the ideal point man to pair with a 2-guard frequently hunting his shot in transition, perhaps the reason why he has been rumored to be Sacramento’s primary target for quite some time. Fox combined with Malik Monk, the 11th overall pick to Charlotte, to form a dynamic backcourt that will have nearly the exact same feel with Hield and make for appealing television. With the likes of Hield filling lanes and finding spots and bigs who love to run such as Willie Cauley-Stein, Fox appears to be a godsend point guard for this particular personnel grouping. His unparalleled speed and striking explosiveness have drawn John Wall comparisons, and his shot isn’t as broken as some have made it out to be. In fact, Fox made 9 of his 19 3-point attempts (47.4%) in the final 10 games of his Kentucky career and has plenty of opportunity to improve in that area. Like Wall, his mechanics are solid off the dribble but wane a bit in catch-and-shoot situations, which is why we often see size-ups and rhythm dribbles before his J’s.

Fox

The Fox/Wall physical tools comparisons are not wrong, however, and it’s safe to conclude Wall has done more than merely survive as a point guard with an inconsistent jumper. Fox owns similar quicks, straight-line speed, handles, and athleticism to do the same, along with a complementary floater game that will be put to good use in late-clock situations. The real scary characteristic Fox proposes, in the end, will be his destructiveness in transition, especially when WCS is almost always the first big down the floor.

But remember, this is the Sacramento Kings. How could they possibly follow up De’Aaron Fox with anything besides a headscratcher? With no clear desirable entity available at 10, the pick acquired in the Cousins trade, Sacramento took advantage of a Trail Blazers team whose cap situation created a dire need to relieve themselves of one of their three first-rounders. Portland, being an obvious trade partner, took the bait, and the Kings, with surprisingly no clear cap deficiencies, attained an additional pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory.

The Sacramento front office would be hard-pressed to top the Georgios Papagiannis/Malachi Richardson debacle of 2016. Fortunately, the Kings must’ve recognized it is Mount Rushmore season on Pardon My Take because they plucked one player from each of the Mount Rushmore college basketball programs. They pulled a stunning 180 by nabbing the best player available as noted baseline assassin Justin Jackson arrived next with the 15th overall pick. Jackson is the model for the updated NBA Draft early entry withdrawal deadline. He returned to North Carolina for his junior season following NBA scout/executive feedback and regained the knockdown shooter reputation he exited high school with. Jackson made no alterations to his stiff, straight-on release point, but obviously spent a summer filled with repetition as he improved from 29% from deep in his first two years in Chapel Hill to 37% in 2016-17. That catch-and-shoot proficiency was the only preventative measure for Jackson’s NBA prospects. As the shots continued to fall in conjunction with a deadly floater game, his name ascended draft boards with each passing week. That scoring versatility, with the added jump shot, is what makes Jackson a steal at 15 for Sacramento. Another wing that will religiously run with Fox in hopes for lead passes, Jackson has a willingness to heavily utilize his refreshingly old-school mid-range attack that is perfectly harmonious with Hield stretching the floor and Fox finding cutters off of his dribble penetration.

As a matter of fact, Jackson wasn’t even Vlade’s premier steal last Thursday. Going the upperclassman route once more, Sacramento found their second unit point guard for many years to come in reigning National Player of the Year Frank Mason. Size, at 6’0” in shoes, was always the issue with Mason’s professional candidacy, with many teams red-flagging that and ignoring his unsurprisingly stellar NBA Draft Combine performance. Buried into the second round by upside-laden big men, Mason will surely send reminders to those who passed on the top 20 prospect. Sneaky athleticism, efficient offense, and moxie are the keys to Mason’s bright future as an NBA point guard. An absurd 50% 2-point % for a sub-6-foot player is all attributable to his knack to shield the ball while absorbing contact and keeping his chin on the rim. This past season opener was a perfect example, where late in the 2nd half and in overtime it felt as though he converted an ah-wuh on every possession against Indiana.

2016_11_11_NCAAB_Indiana_Hoosiers_vs_Kansas_Jayhawks

A Fox/Mason backcourt will be fun to mobilize and annoying to play against with their speed and ability to get under the skin of ballhandlers. Both add the toughness that Dave Joerger has lacked in Sacramento, another representation of the Kings’ coming of age as an organization. Fox, Jackson, and Mason all present a composition of safety and value longitudinally. Thus, sandwiched between Jackson and Mason was an affordable lottery ticket purchase at 20 with Duke’s Harry Giles. He falls under the same category as Skal Labissiere, a lottery ticket already showing promise, as a blue-chip recruit failing to find a niche in college. Giles is worth the gamble after cementing positive draft night. Last Thursday capped the first extensive series of best-interest personnel moves under the new regime. The Kings’ front office has amalgamated fit, instant contribution, and high ceiling with their new youth, proving the basketball minds are now in charge. Here’s to hoping it isn’t screwed up, because Sacramento is a darn good basketball town and Kings faithful have not deserved the decade-plus of suffering they’ve endured.

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