The Sacramento Kings haven’t been to the NBA playoffs since 2006. They were riding eight consecutive playoff appearances before sulking into their current 12-year drought. They’ve often been associated with turmoil, an unreasonable front office, and everything they did wrong to DeMarcus Cousins (although that went both ways).
De’Aaron Fox and Willie Cauley-Stein are ushering in a new era of Kings basketball. One filled with at least a single shred of hopefulness, something that has been absent from this organization for over a decade. The two former Kentucky Wildcats have shot out of the gates on fire this season, set out to prove they are the new wave of basketball excellence in Sactown.
The Kings’ current success through 13 games this season is unprecedented. They’re abusing the uptick in pace that is consuming the league, running teams with better talent than them off the court entirely. They’re beating playoff teams. They’re scoring over 115 points per game. One-hundred and fifteen points per basketball game. You’d have to go all the way back to 1987 to find another Kings team that scored at least 110 points per game throughout an entire season. You’d have to go all the way back to the 1960-70s and the era of Oscar Robertson – when the franchise rested in Cincinnati – to find a year they averaged over 115 points per game.
It isn’t just the two former Wildcats that have aided in this success. Buddy Hield is shooting 43.1 percent from three on over five attempts per game (which might be sustainable for him, considering he hit 43.1 percent on 5.1 three-point attempts last season), he’s an unbelievable shooter. Their *prized* offseason addition, Nemanja Bjelica, has unlocked a spread offense. At six-foot-10, he’s shooting 47.9 percent on his threes on 3.7 attempts per game (that percentage will likely decrease a bit) and is forcing opposing big men to leave the paint and guard him (presenting Fox with plenty of real estate in the middle of the court). They bring the No. 2 overall pick from last season’s draft, Marvin Bagley III, off the bench. Their best overall player from last season, Bogdan Bogdanovic, is just now getting back to full health. The backup guard rotation of Frank Mason and Yogi Ferrell is reliable…enough… with Fox on the bench. So the Kings aren’t just Fox and WCS – they go much deeper than that – but you can’t talk about the team’s overall success without those two at the forefront.
So, let’s talk about them, starting with Fox.
Here are his numbers from last season compared to this season.
One of my biggest gripes about Fox from last season was how he needed the ball in his hands to be effective – as most point guards do – but more so that he appeared to care more about playing for himself rather than his teammates. There were some possessions where he was determined to score no matter what and others where he was always set on passing. Not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not a good one.
This season, Fox has calmed down, letting the game come to him instead of him trying to force it himself. It’s why his assists numbers have skyrocketed. He’s up to 7.1 per game this season – 11th highest in the NBA – compared to only 4.4 last year. While his overall turnovers have spiked as a result, his turnover percentage has stayed about the same.
He’s now allowed to run every time he touches the ball. Any time Fox spies an opportunity to jet up the floor, he acts on it. It’s part of the reason why he covers, on average, 2.54 miles per game, which is one of the top marks in the league. The Kings have emphasized the pace and space era as a team and Fox is the leading force behind that.
Besides the 2015-16 season, when the Kings went the entire season with a pace of 100.0, you would have to travel all the way back to the 1992-93 season to find another Kings team with a pace of at least 100. This current squad is second in the NBA in pace at 106.0 (pace is the number of possessions a team has each game). That incredible pace is wearing teams out.
It’s how they were able to beat the Memphis Grizzlies in one of the only two games only this season in which Sacramento failed to score 100 points. The Grizzlies had the better team, but they also had the older team. The Kings are going to win games in January and February solely because they ran a tired team into the ground.
But Fox just isn’t running harder and more often, he’s running with a purpose. Last season he was allergic to contact. Now he initiates it.
Fox’s free throw attempts are up from 2.7 last season to a blistering 6.4 attempts this season (14th highest amongst all players). Currently, he’s one – if not the best – player in the entire league at getting to the line. He doesn’t have the same type of savvy, foul-inducing moves such as veterans James Harden or Blake Griffin, but Fox has been elite at drawing fouls on his shot attempts when attacking the rim.
He currently ranks in the 100th percentile amongst point guards in drawing fouls. 18.5 percent of the time that Fox takes a shot, he gets fouled. That number rivals All-Stars such as Giannis Anteotkounmpo (18.5 percent), Joel Embiid (17.9), and Anthony Davis (17.4). Unfortunately, Fox is making these freebies at a worse rate than he was last season. His free throw percentage is down from 72.3 percent last season to 68.7 percent this year.
This newfound confidence when attacking the rim hasn’t only resulted in more free throws, but more made shots around the basket. We haven’t seen nearly as many fadeaway leaners from 10-feet out after he gets an initial bump. Now he’s going to bump the defender and jump into them. When they don’t foul him, he’s getting off cleaner looks at the rim. He’s shooting 11 percentage points better at the rim this season plus a much-needed 14 percent improvement from shots within the 4-14 feet range.
This isn’t just the result of a small sample size, Fox knows where his favorite spots are and gets to them (he likes the elbows). He’s too quick to keep at bay and has gained enough muscle in the offseason that he can get there even with resistance.
I’ll end on Fox with a couple of stats. When he’s on the court for Sacramento, the Kings score 14.9 more points per 100 possessions compared to when he sits. On defense, the team allows 15.2 fewer points per 100 possessions compared to when he sits. That’s a net total of plus-30.1, which ranks Fox in the 100th percentile amongst ALL NBA players. When Fox is in, the Kings are a playoff caliber team. Last season was quite the opposite, as he murdered their on/off numbers. Now, it’s those nearly 16 minutes per game when he’s on the bench that cost the Kings the most. Fox’s hot start to the season isn’t a fluke. This is an All-Star in the making happening before our very eyes.
Now for Cauley-Stein, the more interesting of the two.
Here are his stats from last season compared to this season.
WCS went through spurts last season where he was the Kings best player. He would run the floor, make hustle plays, work in the post. Then, randomly, that player would disappear.
So I’m still a bit skeptical about whether or not WCS can keep up his current play all season. Fox has to do for the Kings to maintain their success. WCS has to if he wants the money he so desires.
But WCS never played this well last season.
He’s added multiple post moves. He wants to attack slower defenders off the dribble. He’s always pushing the pace.
Similar to Fox, Cauley-Stein covers all areas of the court. Among centers, Cauley-Stein averages the 13th most miles per game at 2.10.
The high pace has been infectious to not just the team, but to the players themselves, as well. Fox and WCS are two of three players for the Kings who average over two miles per game – the other being Hield.
But it’s Cauley-Stein’s shot selection this season that makes me believe he’s truly making a change to his game. He’s eliminating the mid-range jumper from his offensive arsenal. He tried to incorporate it last season to make himself a threat on the perimeter but hit only 35 percent of his mid-range shots. Instead of taking 16 percent of his shots from outside of 14 feet like he did last season, he’s dropped that number to nine percent. He tried that shot last season and it didn’t work. Instead of forcing it, he’s decided to utilize his speed and quick feet to blow by those defenders who don’t respect his shot. He’s quicker and more nimble than the majority of big men in the NBA.
But that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to take that shot. In the Kings most recent matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves, Cauley-Stein pulled-up for a non-hesitation three that hit nothing but net. It was his first three-point attempt of the season.
And, as you might expect, taking less efficient shots and turning them into more efficient ones has bumped his shooting percentages. His Effective Field Goal percentage has jumped to 58.2 percent this season compared to 50.4 last season – well-above the current league average of 51.9 percent.
There was a clip from one of my recent BBNBA Recaps that I’m going to bring up again that might seem like a minor detail, but it really paints a better picture as to how WCS is transforming his game.
Last season, he takes that mid-range jumper 10 times out of 10. This season, he pump faked and blew right by Serge Ibaka, who is playing impressive defense so far this year at center for the Raptors. It’s simple, but it’s a serious indicator that he wants to be an improved offensive player. His defense has never been anything too special in the NBA (but he definitely isn’t a slouch in that area) and that hasn’t changed much this season, but developing a legitimate offensive game is what’s going to make him that money.
Cauley-Stein is playing nearly the same amount of minutes as last season, but taking – and making – more shots. He’s an early candidate for Most Improved Player.
Together, Fox and WCS create the best duo the Kings can put on the court. There is no 7-6 start without these two. More specifically, there is no 7-6 start without these two creating the excellent chemistry they now have between each other. Of the nine Kings’ lineups that boast a positive point per 100 possessions differential, Fox and WCS are featured in all but one of them.
Go ahead and buy your ticket to hop on the Sacramento hype train, the seats are filling fast.
(Statistics via Cleaning the Glass, NBA.com, and Basketball-Reference)
Follow me on Twitter: @ZackGeoghegan