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Are The Sacramento Kings Postseason Bound?

One year older, wiser and better – surrounded by an enviable blend of young talent and veteran depth – could De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III help the Kings end the league’s longest postseason drought? Jack Winter examines.

Jack Winter

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Midway through leading the Sacramento Kings to their best record in over 10 years, then-head coach Dave Joerger compared De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III to this generation’s gold-standard tandem of homegrown superstars.

“…We have the next Durant-Westbrook,” he said in December. “That’s how good they’re gonna be.”

Joerger is gone a few months later, the latest victim of Sacramento’s time-honored struggle for cohesion between the coaching staff and front office. But the Kings are on an upward trajectory regardless, sprinting their way toward respectability in a Western Conference as wide open as it is loaded – and if Fox and Bagley live up to offseason hype, that lends some measure of credence to Joerger’s claim, maybe more.

The notion that Sacramento could snag one of the eight playoff spots in the West means a team with more proven postseason ambitions won’t. It’s impossible to make a confident choice about which teams will ultimately be watching the action on vacation among those with plans to be playing next spring and early summer. There are a handful of teams with realistic title aspirations out west, and several more could be subject to seismic – and currently unforeseen – organizational shifts should they fail to make the playoffs.

Neither distinction applies to the Kings.

As training camp looms, they sit beside the New Orleans Pelicans, Dallas Mavericks, Minnesota Timberwolves and Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference pecking order as virtual unknowns compared to more established foes at the top of the West. But none of Sacramento’s playoff-hopeful peers can match its blend of last season’s success, core continuity and, most importantly, room to grow in 2019-20.

Fox, of course, is the driving force behind that optimism. He finished third in Most Improved Player of the Year voting last season, an especially ringing endorsement due to voters’ increasing hesitance to reward sophomores for making a leap most foolishly expect is inevitable. Still, it’s undeniable that the broad scope of Fox’s progress has gone mostly overlooked outside of California’s capital.

The Kings ranked first in transition frequency last season, per Cleaning the Glass, by no accident. Fox, arguably the fastest player in the game with the ball in his hands, isn’t James Harden or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he owns his team’s offensive identity every bit as much as the league’s last two MVPs.

Such a young player shouldering that type of burden would normally be indicative of a team growing his game through trial by fire. Not for Sacramento, whose newfound emphasis on pace led to Fox upping his usage, true shooting percentage, assist ratio and lowering his share of assisted baskets all while cutting his turnover rate – a rare, telling feat.

Even more encouraging was the ease and patience with which he began manipulating multiple levels of the defense as a ball-screen operator, and how he drained pull-up threes at a solid 35.2 percent clip, more than doubling his amount of attempts as a rookie.

After a two-week stint as a teammate of Fox’s with Team USA, P.J. Tucker came away with the same realization to which the entire basketball world will soon be privy.

“All these young guys like De’Aaron Fox is amazing, he is way better than I thought he was, not saying I didn’t think he was good, but he is really, really good,” Tucker said, per USA Basketball.

Fox received similar adulation from other national program players and coaches, but their assessment of Bagley’s performance with Team USA is what should have the Kings most excited. Fox’s All-NBA ceiling is a known commodity to those who closely followed the team last season. Bagley’s chances at ever receiving that honor, even after a First Team All-Rookie debut, were a matter worthy of much more debate, and frankly, skepticism.

Bagley is stuck between frontcourt positions at this early stage of his career. He’ll never be a game-changing rim-protector and must get stronger, but is still better suited checking opposing centers than chasing shooters around the perimeter. There is some switch potential with Bagley, though. He has good feet for a big man, and the ability to contest shots from behind after getting beaten off the bounce due to the jaw-dropping quickness with which he gets off the floor.

Concerns about his optimal role on defense, for now, take a backseat to the glowing praise he received from members of USA Basketball this summer. Bagley, like Fox, entered training camp in Las Vegas as a member of the Select Team, but left Sin City a week later having been added to the senior roster – the only sophomore to be considered for FIBA.

He decided to leave USA Basketball shortly thereafter, but not before the perception of his place in the league began to change. Bagley, a mega recruit dating back to his days as a high school underclassman, has long possessed the raw tools of an impact player. If so much talk of his refined shooting stroke and additional strength manifests itself on the floor, he’ll show more than flashes of fulfilling that long-held expectation on a game-by-game basis come the regular season.

Disclaimer: Sacramento’s net rating with Fox and Bagley on the floor was just a hair worse than its season-long number of minus 1.2, per NBA.com. Even in a perfect world of linear development further accelerated by ballyhooed summers, they won’t be ready to lead their team to the playoffs all by themselves. But it’s not like the Kings went a surprise 39-43 last season on the backs of their franchise cornerstones alone, either.

Buddy Hield is coming off one of the best long-range shooting seasons of all time, having drained 278 threes at a 42.7 percent clip – a blend of quantity and quality only ever surpassed by Steph Curry, according to Basketball-Reference. Bogdan Bogdanovic further staked his claim as one of the league’s most dynamic reserve playmakers, and Harry Giles III – finally getting his feet back under him after multiple ACL tears – at times flashed a higher degree of two-way potential than Bagley.

Sacramento overpaid for Dewayne Dedmon, Cory Joseph and Trevor Ariza in free agency. The same goes for Harrison Barnes’ wink-wink four-year, $85 millon deal, signed after he declined a $25 million player option on his existing contract. But it’s not like the Kings have ever been major players on the open market, and the final season of each contract given to those new additions is only partially-guaranteed, while Barnes’ declines in value over its duration.

More importantly, it’s impossible to put any price on what a playoff berth would mean for this franchise. Bonzi Wells was Sacramento’s leading scorer the last time it advanced to the postseason, all the way back in 2006.

Even so, none of the Kings’ offseason acquisitions is a panacea.

Dedmon’s solid rim-protecting numbers last season figure to help a team that finished just above dead last in that regard, but the Atlanta Hawks were actually stingier in the restricted area when he was on the bench, per NBA.com.

Joseph’s limitations as a shooter make him a tricky fit against certain matchups, especially given Fox and Hield’s need for major minutes, despite his rippling defensive value.

Ariza quietly made just 34.1 percent of his catch-and-shoot threes with the Phoenix Suns and Washington Wizards, and in his mid-thirties, usually saves his utmost defensive intensity for drastic circumstances of time and score.

But the Kings don’t need those guys, or even Barnes, to be something they aren’t to make the playoffs. Sacramento was just a game back of the LA Clippers for eighth in the West heading into the All-Star break last February. The difference this season between the Kings crumbling down the stretch and making a postseason push in March and April could be as simple as subtle improvements sparked by their offseason acquisitions, the hiring of Luke Walton or the marginal growth of young players.

Sacramento was 24th in transition defensive efficiency last season, per Cleaning The Glass, a finish that would be disappointing in 2019-20 due to the presence of defensive-minded veterans and a coach with years of experience managing solid defense despite his teams pushing the pace.

Fox already draws fouls at an elite rate for a point guard; the Kings will be better on offense this season merely by virtue of him getting more easy points at the free-throw line. With a versatile defender like Barnes and stretch big like Dedmon, they have an extra dose of lineup and stylistic flexibility up front, too.

The ugly truth is that Sacramento’s playoff hopes are largely out of its control. In a vacuum of on-paper rosters and perfect health, Walton’s team isn’t among the top eight in the Western Conference. But the regular season never goes according to plan. Some teams with especially active offseasons will struggle to coalesce, and star players, unfortunately, will suffer serious, season-changing injuries.

The Kings, finally, are in a position to take advantage once those opportunities present themselves. Long-term, though, they’re thinking bigger than ending the league’s longest postseason drought, and rightfully so considering the presence of Fox, Bagley and an enviable blend of young talent and veteran depth surrounding them.

“I didn’t come here three or four years ago to make the playoffs,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac, a key member of Sacramento’s last title contender, told Bleacher Report in December. “I came here to do some unfinished business, to build a championship team.”

Jack Winter is a Portland-based NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. He has prior experience with DIME Magazine, ESPN, Bleacher Report, and more.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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