All-Star weekend is a break from the grind of the NBA season. It’s a moment for players to catch their breath and prepare for the final stretch of 25 games. It is also a moment for some of the game’s brightest lights to shine.
For a team like the Sacramento Kings, being represented in the festivities is a glimmer of hope for their fan base that has patiently waited for even the smallest sign of improvement over the last decade. The Kings were represented by three young players at the Rising Stars challenge for the first time in franchise history, which hopefully means they are on the right path.
In the end, accolades like this mean very little. The fact that Bogdan Bogdanovic took home the MVP trophy from the game won’t change the final outcome of the 2017-18 season. Former King, Chris Webber, couldn’t even say his name correctly when handing him the hardware.
Two weeks from now, no one will remember that Buddy Hield dropped in 29 points to lead Team World. And De’Aaron Fox’s four-point performance is a tiny blip on what should be a decade-or-more long career.
It’s nice to see headlines splashed across the country like the one on NBA.com, “Team World, led by two Sacramento Kings, dominate Team USA.”
But when the ball tips off Thursday night against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the reality of the Kings’ situation will return. They are an 18-39 team with nine players on rookie scale contracts.
It’s not all doom and gloom. This season was never about wins and losses. It’s about proving up talent, figuring out what the team’s needs are going forward, and development.
Here’s a look at the top five reasons to tune in over the final 25 games of the 2017-18 season:
Fox and Bogdanovic backcourt - Fox took a big spill in the final game before the break and is beat up. Since returning from a leg injury in December, the 20-year-old point guard has averaged 13.8 points and five assists per game. He’s cranked up his defensive effort and his 3-point percentage has climbed dramatically.
Bogdanovic looks like a man possessed, not just in the Rising Star game, but over the final five games leading to the break. The 25-year-old Serb posted 15.4 points on 43.3 percent shooting from behind the arc over the stretch, and he averaged 5.4 assists.
It’s a pairing that should work long term. Fox has the speed to break down defenses. Bogdanovic is a high basketball IQ, jack-of-all-trades player. They compliment each other well and will get a 25-game audition to show they are ready to handle the show next season.
Can Skal Labissiere get back on track? - Labissiere came into the season with a lot of promise, but inconsistent play and a shoulder injury have slowed his progress. He has the skill set to be a high end scorer for the Kings and he’s shown an ability to rebound.
On the downside, Labissiere has struggled to defend on the perimeter and he gets lost in defensive rotations. He’s worked hard to get stronger, but he still gets shoved off the ball, especially when rebounding.
Sacramento needs Labissiere to make a huge step in the final 25 games. They have promising big man Harry Giles waiting in the wings for next season. They also need a stretch four moving forward. Skal will have an opportunity to show he’s a player, but his position is going to get a lot more crowded moving forward.
More than a shooter - The Kings have the highest scoring second unit in the NBA, averaging 45.9 points per game. Buddy Hield has found a home with the reserves, but the Kings need him to be more than just a volume scorer.
Hield has improved on the defensive end, but he’s still a work in progress. Where he can really take a step forward is in his ability to create for others. During the month of February, Hield is averaging just 0.7 assists in 20.6 minutes per game and his assist percentage is one of the lowest amongst the Kings’ regulars.
There’s no question that Buddy can score. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from 3-point range on the season and he’s second on the team in points per game. But if he wants to keep his minutes up, he has to find a way to make the players around him better.
Consistency from Willie - Cauley-Stein has made more poster dunks this season than any Kings player in a while. He has the athleticism and length that teams are looking for as the center position evolves, and his production is starting to rise.
The 24-year-old has a lot riding on the final 25 games of the season. He is eligible for an extension this summer and has yet to establish his market value moving forward.
If he wants the big bucks, he needs to continue to improve his rebounding numbers and become the defensive stopper he was in college. The scoring numbers are improving, but that is just a bonus.
Earn your minutes - With the Kings going young, the door is open for Justin Jackson, Frank Mason III and maybe even Bruno Caboclo. Dave Joerger gave Jackson the opportunity to start the 10 games leading up to the break and the 22-year-old wing showed flashes. He scored in double-figures in six of those games and he’s steadily improving his stats across the board.
After earning a spot in the rotation, Mason missed the entire month of January and has yet to suit up in February due to a heel injury. Mason has played solid ball when healthy, but the Kings need to know if he is their backup point guard moving forward.
Caboclo came over in a deadline deal for Malachi Richardson. He’s logged a total of 113 minutes over four seasons since being drafted with the 20th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft. He’s put up solid numbers in the G-League and there’s a chance the Kings give him an audition down the home stretch.