It’s finally back. NBA basketball is here, and the 2017–18 season projects as one of the most intriguing in quite some time. From the exodus of star talent in the East to a number of new-look teams in the West, there’s no shortage of uncertainty — even with Golden State and Cleveland being projected as the overwhelming title favorites.
The Kings find themselves with an interesting niche in the NBA’s landscape, with a lot of young talent accompanied by a surprisingly strong veteran presence. The team was able to add names like George Hill, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter on reasonable deals, while De’Aaron Fox is largely projected as one of the best guard prospects in a backcourt-heavy rookie class.
As Vlade Divac and Dave Joerger commit to restoring more positive vibes around this Sacramento team, they’ll be looking to strike the right balance between long-term development and immediate success.
The Kings likely want to compete at a high level, but their ability to do so is dictated by the teams around them. The West is loaded with talent, and teams like New Orleans, Portland and Utah — who have more talent and collective experience— will have their own troubles duking it out for the bottom seeds.
That leaves the Kings with a tough choice. Going into full-blown tank mode isn’t ideal for any coaching staff, even if it makes the most sense, while their veterans are fully deserving of quality minutes.
It’s a matter of finding ways to get young guys in the game and stress player development without risking their culture or the quality of the product they’re putting on the floor.
With that in mind, here’s a look at who should be starting for Sacramento this season:
PG — George Hill
I think we all headed into the draft with a sense that De’Aaron Fox was Sacramento’s guy — which, at the time, meant he would be their starter. It was their first draft in full rebuilding mode, and that presumably meant Fox would be handed the keys to the offense and asked to work through his highs and lows as a rookie.
Then free agency happened.
The Kings shelled out a decent price tag for Hill, giving him a three-year, $57 million contract that will pay him $20 million next season. Coming off a career year in Utah, it’s virtually impossible to not start Hill after that.
Last year was the best version of George Hill we’ve seen to date, as the now 31-year-old managed to put up a career-high in scoring (16.9 PPG) while shooting 40.3 percent from beyond the arc.
That’s in addition to a strong year on the defensive end, where the bulk of his respect was gained prior.
Now rounding into one of the league’s more underrated two-way pieces at the point guard spot, it feels like Hill is peaking late. He’s on the wrong side of 30, but could end up having his most productive campaign yet as one of the Kings’ offensive focal points this season.
He isn’t an overly flashy piece, but he plays both ends of the floor with efficiency and a high-I.Q. approach — something this young Kings squad will desperately need.
Considering how often he’ll be sharing the court with four under 25 year olds, he’ll be the anchor that keeps Sacramento’s offense (and defense) in tact.
SG — Buddy Hield
After a strong second half to his rookie season, it’s difficult to picture Hield not getting the starting nod in Sacramento. Both Garrett Temple and Vince Carter are deserving of playing time in some capacity, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of somebody who showed potential as the team’s go-to scoring threat on the wing.
Once in Sacramento, Hield averaged 15.1 points per game on 42.8 percent shooting from deep over the course of 25 games. That kind of efficiency probably isn’t sustainable, but it does highlight just how high his ceiling is when his shots are falling.
Defensive concerns and decision making are things Hield will need to continue working on in his sophomore season, but the Kings should put the majority of their focus towards developing their best prospects, which includes Hield.
If Hill isn’t leading the team in scoring, Hield is one of the few other viable candidates for that type of workload.
SF — Bogdan Bogdanovic
This one was a tough decision. It’s difficult for teams to play too much young talent, and Bogdanovic — even with his extensive international resume — is still a rookie by NBA standards.
With that said, Bogdanovic should be advanced beyond most first-year shooting guards. As a bonafide star overseas, the 25-year-old led Fenerbache to a Euroleague championship while performing at a consistently high level against high-end competition.
He’s somebody who has the chance to come in and be the Kings’ best looking prospect from day one, which includes both Hield and Fox. Bogdanovic has size that Hield doesn’t have and polish that Fox hasn’t yet shown, and should be well-equipped for living up to the three-year, $27 million contract that landed him in the States this offseason.
Bogdan has flown under the radar since he doesn’t have the name recognition that Buddy and Fox do, but his skill set is something that could translate into immediate results next season. Ben Simmons is still the prohibitive Rookie of the Year favorite, but Bogdanovic could force his way into the conversation if Joerger commits to him on a nightly basis.
PF — Skal Labissiere
If you haven’t caught on yet, this lineup is young. That means they probably aren’t built for a lot of victories yet, and the likes of Carter, Randolph and Temple would find themselves providing stability off the bench.
Youth development trumps some unnecessary run to the 10th seed, though, and Labissiere proved himself worthy of significant playing time last season. As somebody who lost a lot of luster as a prospect after his shaky tenure at Kentucky, last year was a reminder of how high Labissiere’s ceiling is under the right circumstances.
We might not ever see Labissiere live up the expectations that came with being the No. 2 prospect in the 2015 recruiting class (ranked ahead of Brandon Ingram), but he has shown the tools needed to survive in a league that isn’t too friendly to big men.
Even as a true 7-footer, Labissiere’s promise as a shooter and overall versatility allows him to slide into the rotation at power forward and share the floor with someone like Willie Cauley-Stein.
He’s mobile enough to defend in space on defense, and will stretch the floor enough to remain effective offensively — something that’s aided by having shooters like Hill, Hield and Bogdanovic on the perimeter.
His 3-point shot is far from a certainty, but a 37.5 percent clip in his limited sample size last season is a promising start. It’s his mid-range prowess and ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the lane.
C — Willie Cauley-Stein
Both Kosta Koufos and Zach Randolph are fine players, but Cauley-Stein rounds out the youth movement at the five. His unique combination of size and mobility could translate into an interesting defensive tandem alongside Labissiere, while his offensive progression further cements his status as the team’s long-term starter underneath.
Cauley-Stein benefited the most by DeMarcus Cousins’ departure last season, stepping into the starting rotation and averaging double-digit points per contest in February, March and April.
He’s still limited to the occasional mid-range jumper in terms of floor spacing, but is an easy lob target that could find consistent success as George Hill’s main pick-and-roll partner next season.
With that said, it’s defense that keeps Cauley-Stein on the floor. He still has one of the league’s most underrated ceilings as a rim protector, as well as the rare lateral quickness needed to defend the perimeter with success. It was his defensive malleability that sold Sacramento on draft night back in 2015, and that attribute has only gained value since.
It seems likely that Temple, Carter and Randolph will all see some starting minutes early in the year, but this season needs to boil down to player development. If they’re ready, allowing Hill to hold down the proverbial fort while the team’s younger pieces get some extended run is the best approach.