The All-Star Game – for me – was the weirdest day of the 2016/17 NBA season. Not because the game itself stamped out the importance and ‘watchability’ of the All-Star Game once and for all, but because of what happened almost immediately after. The Sacramento Kings traded their one and only star, DeMarcus ‘Boogie’ Cousins, to the New Orleans Pelicans for what we thought at the time amounted to about 30 cents on the dollar.
Fast-forward to the end of the season, and as expected the Kings didn’t make the playoffs. But the future looks arguably brighter than it ever did when they had Boogie’s presence. That continued brightness in Sacramento however, will revolve around three key Kings: Skal Labissiere, Buddy Hield and General Manager Vlade Divac.
VLADE DIVAC – THE KINGMAKER
The Kings have the potential makings of a handy core of players. Take Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere, add players like Willy Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Malachi Richards, potentially keep a post-Boogie-over-40%-from-3-shooting Ben McLemore, and one can see a positive future in Sac-Town. But by no means is this core sufficient, and the man that has the responsibility of building the Kings to basketball eminence is General Manager Vlade Divac and his front office, which sadly is renowned as one of the worst in the NBA.
The current perception of the Kings’ front office inadequacies are altogether not unfounded and probably best exemplified by the the handling of the Boogie trade itself. Divac openly admitted to not taking the best deal on the table (despite getting Buddy Hield) and also rushed into execution days before the trade deadline. Regardless, the future of the post-Boogie Kings falls on Vlade Divac’s shoulders, using the assets currently at his disposal to continue to add to the youth foundation already in place.
There is a soft timeline on the Kings rebuild, with their 2019 first round pick being shipped to – surprise, surprise – the Sixers, unprotected (Sam Hinkie died for our sins!) as a result of the Nik Stauskas trade (Kings gave up Stauskas, a future first round pick and change in a salary dump, all so they could chase… Rajon Rondo). Thankfully, by that stage the Kings will potentially have made six total selections over the three previous drafts, have had a massive amount of cap space to play with this off-season and (likely) next and some potential salary dump contracts which provide more worth than the actual player. Still, it’s one thing to have multiple first round picks, cap space and coveted contracts, it’s quite another to make them count. That goes double for this year’s draft, where the Kings have two top ten picks within an extremely talented lottery.
The importance of Vlade Divac as the Kings GM through the 2017 NBA draft is obvious with those two top 10 picks; ultimately doing owner Vivek Ranadive’s (aka The Puppet Master) bidding when selecting prospects on draft night. Ranadive is famously intrusive in the Kings’ affairs as is his right as the team’s owner. However, some of his intrusions are down right mind boggling, blunting the GM’s influence and giving the front office a bad name. So much so that simply getting prospects to Sacramento for a pre-draft workout may be a challenge. One player agent openly admitted to trying to avoid his clients becoming Kings at all costs, comparing it to ‘malpractice’. Though on the back of that report, it should be noted that Markelle Fultz interviewed with the Kings pre-lottery, and one agent would be happy to see any of his clients end up in the regal purple. Fluctuating support notwithstanding, the Kings are seen to house a headless chook of a front office, a perception that Divac must slowly try to influence into positivity.
That would start by changing the mentality into one of long term investment, and not short term success on the basis of the owner’s whims as it has been in the past. Divac will have to influence The Puppet Master to see the merits in filling team needs with pick 5 and 10 next year, not chasing has-been-prima-donna’s (like Rajon Rondo) and using their large cap space to potentially absorb other teams’ poorer contracts for a premium – the antithesis of the Nik Stauskas trade in a similar vein to the Sixers (albeit, maybe not to the same degree). What may be most important of all however, is to build the team around two young princes, the flashing potential of Skal Labissiere and the heady consistency of Buddy Hield.
Coming into Kentucky, every major high school recruiting service had Skal Labissiere or Ben Simmons jockeying for the best incoming College freshmen. Skal’s two main physical attributes, height and mobility, saw him as a can’t miss pro-prospect when combined with a high-level skill set. He had played against new number one overall pick Karl Anthony-Towns in High School and held his own, and at the major basketball camps – which often determine futures before prospects step onto a College campus – Skal endlessly impressed.
Then he got to Kentucky.
The success of John Calipari with elite High School recruits needs no in-depth analysis, with numerous skilled prospects being chiseled into high draft picks, going as far back as Marcus Camby in 1996 and including the likes of Derrick Rose, John Wall and Anthony Davis. Skal Labissiere, we thought, was to be next in line.
His season started well enough, averaging over 14 points through the first six games with a high of 26 points in his second game as a Wildcat. Yet by the end of February, Skal’s porous defence and poor rebounding saw him benched and gracing the court for only 12 minutes a game, going for 4 points per outing. Numbers not expected for a top 2 ranked incoming freshman. Although, Coach Cal repeatedly said that he wasn’t using Skal the correct way.
Thankfully, heading into the NCAA Tournament, Labissiere demonstrated a little flutter of his previously believed talent, and it was just enough to get his name back into the 2016 first round draft discussion.
There was definitive intrigue with Labissiere leading up to draft night in 2016. His inability to rebound or defend to a level even resembling that of the pro game still lingered, teams questioned Labissiere’s lack of basketball IQ and there are always risks with big men who lack muscle. But there was also NBA level length, fluidity of movement and a high release jump shot that (like now) looked like it could become unstoppable. Labissiere was the pinnacle of potential, and he was pegged to go around the late lottery, as per Business Insider who collated all experts picks. Instead he fell all the way to the Kings at pick 28.
Before the Boogie trade, Skal played a total of 8 games for the Kings, averaging 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 6 minutes a game. Post-Boogie however, Skal played in each of the remaining 25 games averaging 10 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes. It was in the post-Boogie void that Skal shone and played his best basketball since High School, with some big games such as the 19 points and 3 rebound game against the Lakers, the 25 and 6 game against the Rockets and the 32 and 11 explosion against the Phoenix Suns.
Skal’s offensive skill set has always been there, lying dormant under the surface. The question on Labissiere is no doubt how much do you read into this late season surge. Is the demonstration of his potential just a brief flirtation before fading to mediocrity or is it the real deal? And if it was the introduction to a coming of age tale, will he be the successor to Boogie’s Kingly Crown? The future holds the answers, but the move towards higher skilled centers with the ability to shoot is currently en vogue in the NBA; the signs are great for Labissiere and the Kings’ future.
ABOUT BUDDY TIME
Buddy Hield’s College career at Oklahoma can be a lot easier described compared to that of his Kings teammate. A highly rated and successful High School player who chose Oklahoma over the Kansas Jayhawks, Hield got better each of his four years as a Sooner, improving his shooting mechanics and his field goal percentage over his College career, ultimately becoming a knock-down shooter finishing with an insane 55% from the field and just under 48% from the land of plenty. His reward was being selected by the New Orleans Pelicans with the 6th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
The Hield-Pelicans fit made a lot of sense in theory. Playing alongside uber-stud Anthony Davis and with Jrue Holiday running the point, Hield would provide floor spacing and a legitimate wing scoring option. Yet in 57 games for the Pelicans that was not the reality. Hield averaged per game stats of 8.6 points, 1.4 assists and 2.9 boards as a Pelican; all the while shooting just over 39% clip from the field and just under 37% from long range.
His best game wearing a Pelican’s jersey was a 11-for-22, 28-point performance. The catch was it came in the BBVA Rising Stars Challenge during the All Star break, a day before he formed part of the Boogie Cousins trade haul and the last time he represented NOLA.
After the Boogie trade, General Manager Vlade Divac openly admitted that the Kings had a better deal on the table than what the Pelicans had provided, which opens obvious questions as to why the Kings made the deal that they did. When we learned that The Puppet Master thought that Buddy Hield was the next Steph Curry (not the next Seth Curry whom had already pulled on a Kings uniform) the trade makes a little more sense. Yes, the deal came with NOLA’s first overall pick, but it also came with Buddy Hield, an equally integral of the deal for the Kings’ brass (read: owner).
To the relief of the Kings, Hield’s numbers jumped up significantly in the remaining 25 games of his rookie season, scoring at 15.1 points a game on 48% field goal percentage, and just a shade under 43% from long range. That went along with 4.1 boards and 1.8 assists per game. Admittedly, he played almost 9 more minutes a game as a King, but those percentages don’t lie. They’re not Steph Curry numbers, sure, but they demonstrate the potential that the Kings made the right call, and that Hield was someone that the Kings could build around.
THE FUTURE – RE-BUILDING FOR THE THRONE
Both Buddy Hield and Skal Labissiere would undoubtedly benefit from a top line point guard, one that can adapt to a drive and kick game. Ty Lawson and Darren Collison – both unrestricted free agents – are no certainties to return to the Kings and regardless, neither should form part of the Kings’ future. Thankfully, the 2017 NBA draft should be able to provide (TFPP draft profiles and analysis here and here). The Kings will likely target one of De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky), Dennis Smith (NC State) or Frank Ntilinka (France) at pick 5 or 10 to fit alongside Hield as the backcourt of the future.
Should the Kings go with a point guard at 5, With pick 10, they could pivot to a small forward, with some very intriguing prospects that should be around at that stage in the draft. Players like OG Anunoby (Indiana), Justin Jackson (North Carolina), and Terrance Ferguson (Adelaide 36ers) all could be worthwhile pick-ups for the Kings. However, the best value at pick 10 will likely be in some of the big men available, with Zach Collins (Gonzaga), Lauri Markkanen (Arizona) and Jarrett Allen (Texas) all hovering around that pick. Any of those could work for the Kings.
The Kings have also been mentioned as a potential suitor for EuroLeague point guard veteran Milos Teodosic. For those who don’t know much about the EuroLeague, Teodosic is a stud. He can score in multiple and crafty ways and he has elite vision, but like a lot of European guards, the questions will be around his lateral quickness. There will be other suitors for Teodosic’s signature however, and Divac will potentially have to lean heavily on their joint Serbian heritage to get him across the line.
Also worth bringing across is Bogdan Bogdanovic, the 6’8 shooting guard for Fenerbahce (Turkish League) who made it to the EuroLeague First Team, and won the EuroLeague MVP for April whilst leading Fenerbahce to the EuroLeague Championship game in which Fenerbahce won and Bogdanovic top scored. The Kings acquired the draft rights for Bogdanovic as part of the 2016 draft day trade that sent the 8th pick to the Phoenix Suns. It’s not known whether Bogdanovic will agree to leaving the EuroLeague for NBA pastures, but if he does he could have an impact on the Kings’ 2017/18 season. But it is up to GM Divac to convince him to head over.
There is little doubt that the return on Boogie Cousins was lacklustre for those outside of the Kings organisation. But, the consequences created a surprising glimpse into the potential future of the franchise, and it wasn’t at all what we expected. The minutes and roles that became available post-Boogie were filled by the eye-catching and reaffirming potential of Skal Labissiere. The added first-round pick from New Orleans that found itself in the lottery is a handy return from the Boogie haul, but so was the 15 points on over 40% shooting per game from Buddy Hield; a stark contrast to his output in The Big Easy. If this tiny glimpse of future that we have seen is to become the reality, it will require the continuing development of Labissiere, the continued level of production from Hield and smart off-season decisions by Vlade Divac. The Kings may just have begun the process of returning to basketball royalty.