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Plenty of intrigue for Kings in the final 25 games

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USATSI

Plenty of intrigue for Kings in the final 25 games

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.  

Sacramento native Rhys Hoskins reaches Home Run Derby semis

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USATSI

Sacramento native Rhys Hoskins reaches Home Run Derby semis

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper thrilled the home crowd and surely made his father proud, winning the All-Star Home Run Derby on Monday night with an exceptional display of power that carried him past Kyle Schwarber of the Chicago Cubs 19-18.

Harper hit the contest-winning blast in extra time, the reward for hitting two homers at least 440 feet during the 4 minutes of regulation. After he connected with the game winner, the Washington Nationals slugger threw his bat in the air and pointed both index fingers toward the sky as a shower of streamers rained upon the crowd of 43,698.

The six-time All-Star arranged to have his dad, Ron, pitch to him in the annual contest on the eve of the All-Star Game. Harper responded with a performance that drew the loudest cheers of the night at Nationals Park.

It’s been a trying season for Harper, who’s hitting only .214 for the disappointing Nationals. He won a contest that many sluggers avoid, fearful it might wear them out and throw them off.

Harper can only hope this helps him get back into the swing.

The 2015 NL MVP beat Freddie Freeman of the Atlanta Braves and Max Muncy of the Dodgers before trumping the fifth-seeded Schwarber, who put the pressure on with a solid outing before Harper stepped to the plate.

Wearing a headband that resembled the District of Columbia flag and displaying a right sleeve with stars and stripes, Harper trailed 18-9 with 1:20 left before rallying. He homered on nine of his last 10 swings before entering extra time.

Hours before the session, Harper spoke excitedly about having his dad pitch to him in the contest. The 25-year-old said his father “worked his tail off every single day to provide for me and my family” and “now being able to have him throw to me in a big league ballpark is the cherry on top.”

Harper advanced to the final with an astonishing spree of long-ball hitting. He trailed Max Muncy of the Dodgers 12-4 with 2:20 left, then peeled off six homers in 47 seconds before calling a timeout.

Harper returned to hit three more home runs in 22 seconds, the last of them inside the right-field foul pole.

The semifinal matchup between Schwarber and Philadelphia’s Rhys Hoskins was a thriller. After stunning top-seed Jesus Aguilar of Milwaukee in the opening round, the eighth-seeded Hoskins ripped 20 long balls to put the pressure on Schwarber.

Using a late surge, Schwarber pulled one ball after another over the right field wall to squeeze out a 21-20 victory — by far the highest-scoring matchup of the night.

The fans dutifully cheered most home runs during the first round, but they saved their loudest cheers for Harper, the last player to step to the plate.

After Freeman hit 12 home runs over the 4-minute span, Harper unleashed six shots of at least 440 feet and secured the victory with a drive to center long before the clock expired. As the ball cleared the wall, the left-handed hitting Harper walked out of the batter’s box and thrust both arms in the air.

Freeman was the oldest player in the field at 28, and the first Braves participant since Andruw Jones in 2005.

Milwaukee’s Aguilar, the NL home run leader at the break, was eliminated in the opening round by Hoskins 17-12.

Aguilar hit too many balls to straightaway center, where the wall stands over 400 feet from the plate. Hoskins pumped most of his drives into the left-field seats, where it’s 336 feet down the line.

The most thrilling first-round match featured a near buzzer-beater by Houston’s Alex Bregman, who fell to Schwarber 16-15. The difference was the pair of homers that Schwarber hit during 30 seconds of extra time, the reward for hitting two long balls of at least 440 feet.

Bregman — the lone AL representative — appeared defeated with a minute left, but he mounted a late surge and lost when his final swing produced a drive that landed at the base of the center-field wall.

Muncy advanced by defeating No. 6 seed Javier Baez of the Cubs, 16-15. Baez hit the longest shot of the Derby, a 479-footer.

Aaron Rodgers hits fan jumping off a boat in Tahoe in stride with perfect throw

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AP

Aaron Rodgers hits fan jumping off a boat in Tahoe in stride with perfect throw

Green Bay Packers quarterback (and former Cal Golden Bear) Aaron Rodgers is known for his downfield accuracy. 

Rodgers has three successful Hail Marys to his name. The first, on Dec. 3, 2015 against the Detroit Lions, kept his team's playoff hopes alive. Another, on Jan. 16, 2016 against the Arizona Cardinals, sent the Divisional game to overtime, and a third came en route to a Wild Card game win against the New York Giants on Jan. 8, 2007. 

At the American Century Championship Celebrity Golf Tournament in Lake Tahoe on Friday, Rodgers added another notch to his belt.

His latest effort won't be confused with the other three, but it's not like any of those receivers landed in a body of water, either. 

The real question? Whether or not that's a catch under the NFL's new rules.