Should We Be Taking the Kings' Success Seriously?
Updated: Oct 9, 2021
To say that the Kings have been a surprise in the last two weeks is a serious understatement.
Since having their two-game mini-series against the Grizzlies postponed on Jan. 24-25 due to COVID-19, Sacramento has surged to a 6-2 record in their last eight games. They now sit at 12-12, just one game removed from a playoff spot in the Western Conference. Most of their recent fortune can be attributed to point guard De'Aaron Fox. Fox has stepped up his game as of late, averaging almost 28 points and eight assists in his last ten games.
As a Kentucky freshman, Fox was projected as a top-five pick in the 2017 NBA draft. He was yet another elite Wildcat point guard – the program had already produced John Wall, Brandon Knight, and Tyler Ulis within the decade. Perhaps the trait valued highest by NBA teams was his lightning-quick speed. We're talking about covering all 94 feet of a basketball court in four seconds flat. The Kings took him right at number five, elated to have their point guard of the future.
Fox had a decent rookie season to the tune of 11.6 points, 2.8 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game. However, coming into the NBA, his biggest weakness was a steady jumpshot. It was obvious in his first 82 games, as he barely topped 30% from 3-point range and shot 41.2% overall from the floor. The speedster set a career-high from deep in his sophomore season with 37.1% but dipped back down to 29.2% in year three.
So far this season, Fox is averaging 5.4 3-point attempts, far more than his previous career mark of 3.6 last year. He's also converting them at a 35.7% rate; it's not Curry-level by any means, but it's impressive considering the evolving distribution of his attempts. Fox truly appears comfortable from behind the arc this season, and 20.8% of his attempts are coming off pull-up looks. In his last three seasons, these composed just 11.6% of Fox's 3-point shots.
Another key piece to Sacramento's offense comes from rookie guard Tyrese Haliburton. During the pre-draft process, some teams believed the 6'5" Haliburton was best suited to play primarily off the ball, while others had faith in his ability as a pure point guard. He's thrived as the latter off the bench in Sacramento, averaging 12 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. The former Iowa State Cyclone isn't putting up many shots, but he doesn't need to because of his stellar efficiency. Haliburton is first among rookies in effective field goal percentage (62.1) and second in true shooting percentage (63.3).
Haliburton was a 42.6% career 3-point shooter during his two years as a Cyclone, but his funky form gave many teams pause. I find it to be reflective of his confidence and drive that Haliburton stuck with his jumper, even when scouts wanted to see a more orthodox release. He's proving that he's more than capable of manning Sacramento's offense; he can dish clever assists and hurt defenses on all three levels of the floor.
The 20-year-old rookie hasn't only been efficient; he's a lot more consistent than a typical first-year pro. Though his highest scoring output thus far is 23 points, he's only had single-digit performances in five out of 22 games for the Kings. We likely haven't seen Haliburton's offensive ceiling. He'll only get more comfortable with Sacramento's system with each game, and I think he can reach 15 points per night by the end of the season.
The Kings truly looked like an embarrassment to begin the season, mainly because they were historically bad on defense. Now, they're slightly less putrid. Sacramento is allowing opponents to convert 47.8% of their shots, the third highest in the league behind Detroit and Washington. With the way they've been lighting it up on offense, a passable defense is all the Kings need at the moment.
It's truly been a joy to watch what Sacramento has done recently, something that fans haven't been able to say for years. In the span of a week, they conquered the Pelicans, Celtics, Nuggets, and Clippers, three of which could realistically reach the Conference Finals (sorry, New Orleans). But is that sustainable? Their offensive numbers will come back down to earth, and it's not like they have a brick wall on defense as a safety net.
What the Kings have accomplished in the last two weeks is almost as significant as their last two years. But they have pieces that aren't conducive to a successful future in Sacramento. Harrison Barnes is 31 years old and Buddy Hield's development has seemed to stagnate. Fox and Haliburton are excellent building blocks, but Barnes and Hield should be dealt while they still have value. The young Kings' development is worth the excitement, but take the sum of Sacramento's parts with a grain of salt.