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Sacramento Kings 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

The Sacramento Kings have been collecting promising young talent, but will it yield a run towards the playoffs or another trip to the lottery? Basketball Insiders takes a deep dive into the Sacramento Kings in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Throughout the past decade, no team in the NBA has summed up basketball purgatory quite like the Sacramento Kings. They currently own the league’s longest playoff drought at 12 years. For all that time they’ve been in the lottery, they seemingly have very little to show for it. There was a time when the old Arco Arena was among the most feared arenas in the league for opponents. Now the Kings home arena is more of a place where visiting teams can pencil in an easy victory.

All is not lost, however. It does appear that there is finally light at the end of the tunnel. The Kings enjoyed a great free agency period last summer when they managed to sign three of the most respected veterans in the league in George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. Two of the three have since moved on, but the fact remains that those guys were willing to come to Sacramento. Now, with a few recent draft moves, it appears that the Kings are finally headed in the right direction.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

The Kings can always be counted on to zag where most other front offices would zig, and they did exactly that once again to begin the 2018 offseason. In drafting Marvin Bagley III over Luka Doncic, Sacramento passed on a guy many considered the single can’t-miss prospect of the draft – and no one is going to forget about it anytime soon if Doncic becomes a star while Bagley, as some worry he will, becomes mostly an empty stats guy. Elsewhere, it was another roller coaster summer for the Kings. They made a huge restricted free agent offer to Chicago’s Zach LaVine, a smart move given the cap situation around the league, but the Bulls matched. After a curious trade that sent Garrett Temple out for a reunion with Ben McLemore, the Kings are left with a guard and wing group that’s pretty thin after young core pieces De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield, plus swingman Bogdan Bogdanovic. They’ve still got several intriguing frontcourt pieces even beyond Bagley, including Skal Labissiere, Harry Giles and Willie Cauley-Stein, but will there even be enough court time for all these guys to develop? They’ll have to fight for minutes with guys like Zach Randolph, Kosta Koufos and newly-signed Nemanja Bjelica – none of whom are good enough to anchor a playoff-caliber frontcourt at this point. It could be another head-scratcher of a season in Sacramento without some moves made, even if Fox or Hield takes some real steps forward.

5th Place – Pacific Division

-Ben Dowsett

The Sacramento Kings are a tough organization to figure out. Each season the team makes head-scratching moves that come off as just random and without much purpose. This offseason, the Kings Signed extended a four-year, $78 million offer sheet to restricted free agent Zach LaVine, which the Chicago Bulls matched. I just don’t see LaVine as the missing piece that Sacramento desperately needed, especially with other young guards already on the roster. Despite the constant head-scratching moves, the Kings still have some interesting prospects on the roster, including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harry Giles, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and Marvin Bagley III. While the team has some nice young talent, it is nowhere near playoff contention in the Western Conference and still seems to operate without a long-term vision in mind.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Jesse Blancarte

There isn’t much else to say about the Kings that hasn’t already been pointed out. Their roster all in all is a mess. They have too many bigs and guards, but not enough wings. They have vets with no place on the roster and no one knows exactly what they’re doing. In other words, they’re still the Kings. They do have a solid youth movement on their hands led by the likes of De’Aaron Fox, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Harry Giles. For the next couple of years, they’ll have to decide who they want to stay long-term as they rebuild. For now, expect Sacramento to be among the bottom dwellers.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Matt John

It’s going to be a joy to watch head coach Dave Joerger maintain the development of his younger players. He could have a three-headed monster in the making if things go the way they’re supposed to. De’Aaron Fox showed flashes last season in the clutch. Now, he’ll get not one, but two new, talented rookie teammates in Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles, who missed all of last season. Buddy Hield is flying under the radar as the sharpshooter most of us predicted he’d be in the pros as well. As much as they’ll likely be fun to watch grow together, there will be ups and downs.

5th Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

Zach Randolph and Iman Shumpert — those are the Kings’ two highest-paid players. Think about that for a second. The Kings have almost no proven veterans; they are team truly built around their youth, and while that youth could be impressive in a few years, this year is going to be tough, especially in the West. The Kings desperately need one (maybe two) of their promising young guys to really blossom for this team to go anywhere significant. Rebuilding is a long and brutal process. The Kings are midway through it with a lot to show for their trips through the lottery, but expecting them to be anything more than a fun young team might be misplaced.

5th Place – Pacific Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Buddy Hield

As of right now, the Kings’ roster is still taking shape. It’s quite possible that once the season begins, this list may end up being drastically different from what’s being predicted. But with no games having been played yet, based on everything we know up to this point, Buddy Hield is currently the best offensive player on the team.

When he was traded to the Kings during the 2016-17 season, he immediately put up 15.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, and 42.8 percent from the three-point line. His numbers dropped this past season to 13.5 points per game on 44.6 percent shooting, but he did knock down a career-high 43.1 percent from three. Although he came into the league as a four-year college player, he’s just now entering his third NBA season. He’s a great shooter who can knock down shots from anywhere on the court. One area he stands to improve upon is his ability to get to the rim and draw contact. He only averages about one free throw attempt per game. If he can show that part of his game this season, he could be in line for a breakout offensive year.

Top Defensive Player: Willie Cauley-Stein

Even after three years in the league, Willie Cauley-Stein is still a work in progress. He has shown, however, the possibility of him becoming one of the better interior defenders in the NBA. He’s already become the Kings’ best interior defender, as he showed this past season his shot blocking ability. He also displayed glimpses of being a solid one-on-one defensive player. Defensive rebounding was also a strength of his.

What Cauley-Stein needs to improve upon is becoming a much more consistent defensive player. He’s got all the tools and skills to really become one of the league’s best defensive anchors in the paint. In today’s NBA, big men are earning spots by being able to switch defensively and guard multiple positions. Cauley-Stein has the physical tools to do just that. But even as it stands, he is one of the Kings best defenders.

Top Playmaker: De’Aaron Fox

As a rookie, De’Aaron Fox immediately emerged as Sacramento’s top playmaker. He may not have had the rookie season that some of the peers did, but he showed enough to warrant the Kings taking him with a top-5 pick. A point guard is an extension of the coach on the floor. A point guard quarterbacks the team and ensures the offense is run to perfection.

Fox was thrust into that role as a rookie and he did very well. He’s already a great player in transition and he displayed a willingness to keep his head up and watch for his teammates in position for easy buckets. Point guard is a tough transition to make from college to the NBA game, but Fox has shown enough glimpses to assure Sacramento that he’s their floor general of the future.

Top Clutch Player: De’Aaron Fox

One area that Fox seemingly excelled in during his rookie season was his clutch performances. There are many players who shy away from big moments late in games, but Fox has proved beyond doubt that he is not one of those players.

Although he was a rookie on a team that had a couple veteran options, he never hid from clutch situations. It was the exact opposite in fact. He relished those moments and his aggressiveness on the court and willingness to take big shots stood out. He actually won a few games for the Kings with his late game heroics, including some game winning shots. That lack of fear in big moments is something that can’t be taught. It’s either in you or it’s not, and Fox proved that he definitely has it.

The Unheralded Player: Harry Giles

Harry Giles had almost become a forgotten name to the general public. There was a time when he was projected to be one of the top picks in the NBA draft. He was considered the top player in his high school class and a highly sought after recruit. Unfortunately, he was hit with major injuries that ended up affecting his draft stock. The Kings drafted him with the knowledge that he probably wasn’t going to suit up for his rookie season.

The world got their first glimpse of Giles in the NBA when he suited up a couple games for the Kings during summer league. He predictably looked rusty, but he did provide flashes of the player that was once talked about as a potential No.1 overall pick. He displayed potential to become a versatile scorer as well as an elite defender. He can switch between forward spots and he could be able to guard multiple positions. You can laugh all you want, but a healthy Giles will certainly be in the running for Rookie of the Year.

Best New Addition: Marvin Bagley III

Marvin Bagley had plenty of hype entering his senior year of high school. He was widely regarded as the best player in the country. He announced his college decision live on ESPN and his arrival in Durham seemingly guaranteed Duke would make a deep postseason run. Instead, the Blue Devils had a disappointing ending to their season and some of Bagley’s flaws were magnified, causing some to ridiculously assert that he shouldn’t be taken with one of the top picks.

Thankfully for Sacramento, they did not fall for that. Bagley may have struggled somewhat in summer league, but like his teammate Giles, he showed enough in the limited games he played to justify the Kings taking him with the second overall pick. Bagley has an incredibly versatile skill set. He is a big man who can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as well as shoot from the perimeter. He’s got some semblance of a back to the basket game, but that is one part of this offensive package that he’ll have to improve upon. College isn’t always the best indicator of NBA success, and Bagley’s game is more suited to the pro level. Do not be surprised if the Kings end up with two potential Rookie of the Year candidates.

-David Yapkowitz

WHO WE LIKE

1. Justin Jackson

When the Kings selected Fox, Giles, and Justin Jackson all in the 2017 NBA Draft, it looked like one of their best drafts in a very long time. Fox and Giles were definite lottery talent players, but Jackson has the potential to be a very good NBA player in his own right. He had a decent rookie season that saw him play in 68 games including 41 starts. He exploded during summer league, where he showed a versatile scoring package. He will need to improve his three-point shot, and if he can do that, he’ll be the prototypical 3&D player.

2. Frank Mason III

The Kings garnered a lot of praise for their draft haul of Fox, Giles and Jackson. But the one guy who may have looked more NBA ready this past season was second-round pick Frank Mason III. Mason emerged as one of the Kings top contributors off the bench. As a rookie, he helped run the second unit with the poise of a veteran. The Kings did sign Yogi Ferrell in the offseason, but Mason did well enough to prove that he should get first crack in the rotation as the backup point guard.

3. Bogdan Bogdanovic

Bogdan Bogdanvoic didn’t come over to the NBA until a year after he was drafted, but he was immediately the Kings’ best rookie last season. He was NBA ready right from the start and was named MVP of the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend. He can shoot, he can pass, and he’s got good size for a guard. He should be a starter level player in the NBA for at least a few more years.

4. Wenyen Gabriel

Wenyen Gabriel was signed to a two-way contract with the Kings, so it’s likely that he’ll spend most of the season with the Stockton Kings, Sacramento’s G-League affiliate. He had two so-so years at Kentucky before going undrafted and ending up on the Kings summer league team. He showed some glimpses in Las Vegas and he’s only 21 years old. He’s already got a nice shooting touch from outside and he’s in the mold of an interior shot blocker. He should get some nice time to develop in the G-League and could be a player to look out for in the future.

-David Yapkowitz

STRENGTHS

Their young core. It appears as if the Kings’ trips to the lottery have begun to yield results. Perhaps all of their futility the past decade will finally pay off. Fox, Giles, Jackson and Mason was a great draft haul. Fox, Jackson and Mason have already displayed NBA readiness while Giles is a potential Rookie of the Year candidate. They still have Skal Labissiere, who exploded after the DeMarcus Cousins trade. He came back down to Earth last season but he’s just scratched the surface of what he could potentially develop into. And then there’s Bagley. Bagley’s got all the tools to be a superstar in the NBA. The Kings are certainly hoping that’s what he becomes.

-David Yapkowitz

WEAKNESS

A losing culture. Constant losing can be devastating in the NBA, especially with young players. That’s the risk you take when you end up tanking or just flat out being bad. Just like how a culture of winning can take place, the opposite is true as well. Losing becomes the norm and that’s what fans and players alike come to know and expect. The Kings have a long way to go to get back to respectability. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s got to start somewhere. The Kings really need to show the world this season that they no longer are a pushover. They don’t need to win so much as they need to be competitive. A bunch of losses by one point is better than a bunch of blowouts.

-David Yapkowitz

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the Kings make the playoffs?

As the current owners of the longest streak of missing the playoffs, the fans up in Sacramento have got to be anxious for something good. The bad news is the Kings are nowhere near ready to compete for a postseason berth, not in the Western Conference. The good news is that they may finally have the foundation to eventually reach that goal. It’s baby steps, and to borrow a phrase from the Philadelphia 76ers, they need to “trust the process.”

-David Yapkowitz

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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