Despite winning by nine points and improving to an 11-1 record, the Toronto Raptors were just relieved to leave Sacramento with a win.
“I think they controlled [the tempo] more than we did,” Raptors guard Danny Green told The Step Back after the game. “I think we’re lucky to come out with this one.”
There was authenticity in Green’s voice. It wasn’t meant as all due respect or a humble brag. The Raptors had yet to see a team quite like the Kings and, even six months ago, it would have been unthinkable that a team that finished with the best record in the East and added Kawhi Leonard was “lucky” to get a win against the Kings.
But this isn’t the Kings of six months ago. After a year-long identity crisis, they have a new look and scheme that has helped them start the season with a winning record, making them one of the surprise teams in the NBA.
They’re playing with increased pace and space. Head coach Dave Joerger uses the term “wide open” and second-year point guard De’Aaron Fox has more room to operate. Within the organization, there’s a strong belief that Fox is the sort of player they can build the franchise around. Winning smile, highlight reel potential and, as Joerger said, the right mindset.
“He’s a guy who is sharp,” Joerger told The Step Back. “Like the game and the understanding of competitive athletics comes easy to him so he can break it down mentally. And we’re trying to get people out of his way.”
The Kings were dead last in pace last season, but even then Fox and Joerger talked about shifting gears to a faster pace. This season, they’re averaging more than 12 more possessions per 48 minutes, just a hair behind the Atlanta Hawks for the fastest pace in the league.
Fox has improved from his rookie season and says the game has slowed down for him.
“Yeah, we’re playing a lot faster,” Fox told The Step Back. “But I think as far as me just seeing the game and seeing things develop it’s slowed down.”
It’s showed. He’s revving up and slowing down his attacks with savvy and making smart passes to set up his teammates. His vision seems clearer and he’s forcing the defense to react as opposed to him reacting to it. Despite the increased pace, the Kings are still using Fox in the pick-and-roll at the same rate as last season — about 43 percent of the time. Only this season, the team is scoring 10 percent more often in those sets, from a scoring frequency of 33.9 percent to more than 43 percent, per NBA.com’s tracking data.
Fox is averaging almost seven more points per game versus his rookie year. He’s getting to the line more (6.3 free throw attempts per game from 2.7 as a rookie) and has shot better from the floor. What dogged Fox as a rookie was his shooting stroke, he made just 30.8 percent of his 3-point attempts as a rookie and shot 41.2 percent overall.
Over the summer he spent afternoons after morning practices shooting. Not dribbling, not running pick-and-roll. Just catching and shooting. So far this season he’s shooting 37.5 percent from 3 and 50 percent overall. His stroke still isn’t natural or consistent, and those percentages will come back down to Earth at some point, but he’s putting in the work and there’s reason to be optimistic. He won’t be old enough to order a Moscow Mule until late December.
Fox also spent the summer trying to bulk up. In addition to regular weight training, he’s trying to eat more and says he’s gained almost 10 pounds. “I know that’s really my problem, just trying to eat more,” Fox said. “I sweat so much, I lose so many calories after I play and after I practice and after working out and stuff like that, so it’s just really just increasing my intake.”
Fox is taking on more and he’s thriving. It finally looks like the Kings hit on a draft pick.
The team is also banking its future on No. 2 overall pick Marvin Bagley III. They took Bagley over guys like Luka Doncic and Trae Young, who have been earmarked as franchise players in their own right.
Small forward jokes aside, the Kings are enamored with Bagley’s athleticism, his energy, and his fluidity in the open court early on. Bagley spends a lot of time at the 4 next to either Kosta Koufos or Willie Cauley-Stein. To do be an effective stretch-4, he’ll have to make 3s at an efficient clip. So far, so good. Bagley’s making 50 percent of his 3s this season. Of course, there will be a regression there too, but he just needs to make them enough so that defenses close out on him and he can use his real strength of attacking and finishing at the rim.
There’s still a lot to be desired on the defensive end. Against Toronto, Bagley was routinely attacked by Paskal Siakam in the post, using one or two moves to get by him and finish at the rim or draw a foul. That’s par for the course for rookie centers. He’ll need time to adjust to the NBA game just like Fox did.
Any time a team picks in the lottery, as the Kings have done for the last 12 years, it has the chance to change the future of the team. Unfortunately for Sacramento, they’ve seen its fair share of busts. What makes the last two picks so important for the Kings is the fact that they owe their 2019 pick to Philadelphia or Boston. With a lottery leap year approaching, the Kings will need to see even more progress from Fox and Bagley.
The Kings have the sixth-youngest roster in the league, per RealGM, with an average age of less than 26 years old. But subtract the 37-year-old Randolph, who has spent most of the start of the season away from the team, and the Kings are the NBA’s youngest team with an average age of 24.4 years old.
In addition to leveraging the speed and energy of the players, playing up-tempo is a way for Joerger to mask some of the mistakes expected from such a young team.
“We make mistakes that are experience things or size things, but we make it up because we’re playing fast,” Joerger said. “We give up a blowby but we’re getting the ball out and we’re making a bang-bang layup on the other end.”
They use their young legs to their advantage. On offense, they get out and run. On defense, they’ll often go to a full-court press. This is who the Kings want to be, especially while they’re young.
“Guys are having fun. They’re getting up and down,” Joerger said. “They have an identity and a belief that we can win this way.”
Fortunately for the Kings, there’s already a roadmap for them to follow. A few years ago, the Houston Rockets put James Harden and Dwight Howard (then, later, Clint Capela) in high pick-and-rolls, spread the floor with shooters like Trevor Ariza and Ryan Anderson, and let Harden cook. As Fox develops, he’ll be able to make even better decisions with the ball in his hands and grow into a more creative passer and finisher.
The next step is adding layers as Houston did. Bring in additional scorers, attackers and facilitators and slowly add to what’s simple until it becomes more complex, forcing opponents to adjust again. But, like the Rockets, the Kings need a franchise player to do that. They need to know who they’re building around, and everyone they bring in needs to complement that player.
The Kings are confident they have that with Fox and Bagley. Finding the pieces that fit around them will be determined by how they develop. For now, it’s all about giving them the room to grow.