Kings

Calipari sees Labissiere's progress during rookie season: 'I give Sac credit'

Calipari sees Labissiere's progress during rookie season: 'I give Sac credit'

Nothing has come easy for Skal Labissiere. He survived the earthquakes in Haiti. He moved to the United States speaking only only French and Haitian Creole as a young teenager. And his lone season at Kentucky he went from a top five prospect to a player that nearly fell out of the first round.

The knock on Labissiere coming out of Kentucky was that he didn’t like contact. Maybe it went farther than that, but there was no question that when he left for the NBA, he didn’t exactly walk away on the best of terms with head coach John Calipari.

When the Kings took on the Los Angeles Lakers at the Staples Center in the final week of the regular season, Calipari sat in the stands watching a small group of his former players. During the telecast, NBC Sports California’s Kayte Christensen caught up with the legendary coach and he couldn’t stop gushing about his Wildcats alums, specifically the play of Labissiere.

“I look at Skal and the progress - I give Sac credit,” Calipari told Christensen. “These guys are working with him. He’s playing more confident. They’re putting him in positions he can have success. I didn’t do as good a job as they did.”

Labissiere went off for 19 points on 8-of-13 shooting against Los Angeles. He added three rebounds and two blocks, but the Kings stumbled down the stretch, allowing the Lakers to come away with the 98-94 victory.

In his freshman season at Kentucky, Labissiere scored more than 19 points just once, a 26 point outburst in his second game of the year against NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology). His highwater mark in his rookie season for the Kings was a 32-point, 11-rebound performance against the Phoenix Suns on March 15.

“He’s getting stronger, he’s growing, you can see him maturing physically, which was a big part of it,” Calipari said. “He had a good season with us, but, I used him wrong. Now I see him now, it’s amazing he’ll speak for me after I’m watching him play like this.”

The 21-year-old power forward has a smile that lights up a room. He even uses it as a defense mechanism when things get uncomfortable. Speaking about his time in Kentucky seems uncomfortable for the 6-foot-11 forward.

“Coach Cal, he does a really good job of getting guys ready for the next level,” Labissiere told NBC Sports California. “I appreciate him.”

Labissiere is looking ahead, not backwards. He is a an incredible talent and he is thankful for the job that Dave Joerger and his staff have done with him during his first season in the NBA.

“Coach Joerger, every since I was drafted here, he’s always believed in me,” Labissiere said. “He’s always putting me in the right positions, making me work on different things that normally I didn’t do in college. He’s making me do different things and believing in me. I love playing for him.”

Kentucky has produced some of the best big men in the game, including DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s a hotbed for talent, but specifically for centers and power forwards that take their game to the next level in the pros.

Labissiere would love to be included in that list, but he isn’t trying to be someone he’s not. His focus is on improving and helping his team win games.

“I don’t know, I’m just working for myself, doing what I’m supposed to do,” Labissiere said. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I’m just going to keep doing my thing.”

The Kings have big plans for Labissiere and the rest of their young core this summer. Labissiere will likely join the team’s three other 2016 first round picks in Las Vegas for Summer League in July. Another two or three rookies from the 2017 NBA Draft will likely join them as Sacramento attempts to build some early chemistry amongst.

Following Summer League, Labissiere is scheduled to travel to Haiti where he will hold a basketball camp in his home country. It’s the first time he’s been back to Haiti since moving to the US following the earthquake in 2010.

Labissiere wasn’t the only Kentucky product on display for Sacramento against the Lakers. Willie Cauley-Stein spent three seasons under Calipari before going sixth overall in the 2015 NBA Draft.

Cauley-Stein put up solid numbers in front of his former coach, finishing the game against the Lakers with 14 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in just 23 minutes of action.

“Willie is doing what he does,” Calipari said. “He’s flying up and down that floor, he’s blocking shots. He seems to have some freedoms to do some of the stuff he does well.”

Cauley-Stein is a completely different player two season removed from his time at Kentucky. He finished strong down the stretch for Sacramento, showing a newfound confidence in his scoring ability.

“It’s a great feeling, I don’t think he’s watched me play like that since I left,” Cauley-Stein said. “It was cool to get a chance to see him and show him things I’ve worked on and I’ve gotten better. It was really satisfying, [him] telling me I got better, so I know I’m [going] in the right direction.”

It’s clear that Labissiere and Cauley-Stein had a very different experience at Kentucky. The end result might work out just fine for the Sacramento Kings. The duo played alongside one another for plenty of games down the stretch as the team’s starting frontcourt. It’s a look Kings fans might get used to seeing going forward.

 

Kings player profile: Can Dewayne Dedmon stay healthy enough to contribute?

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USATSI

Kings player profile: Can Dewayne Dedmon stay healthy enough to contribute?

Continuity is big in the NBA, but Dedmon brings a very specific skill set that should help the Kings, and more specifically, Bagley, take another step forward. He can do a lot of what Cauley-Stein brought to the table, but his ability to shoot from the perimeter and defend the rim are major upgrades at the position.

He’s also a veteran player that’s been around the block and can provide another mature voice behind the scenes.

Strengths

A late bloomer, Dedmon has progressively gotten better in each of his six seasons in the NBA. He’s bounced around the league, but he’s hopefully found a home on the Kings’ frontline, at least for the next two or three years. 

Dedmon shot just one 3-point attempt through his first four seasons in the league and then Atlanta happened. It started under coach Mike Budenholzer and then continued when Lloyd Pierce took over the Hawks.

During the 2017-18 season, Dedmon shot 35.5 percent on 2.3 3-point attempts per game. Those numbers jumped to 38.2 percent on 3.4 attempts per game last season, which is a big reason why the Kings chased him in free agency.

When Dedmon isn’t shooting from the perimeter, he is typically used as the lob man in the pick-n-roll. He shot 70.1 percent at the rim on 129 makes. 104 of those conversions were assisted. 

As a rebounder, Dedmon has posted seasons where he is an elite defensive rebounder, finishing with 30.6 percent, 28.1 percent and 25 percent over the last three seasons. The development of Jon Collins last season likely caused a dip in his numbers, but there is potential for him to be one of the Kings’ best rebounders per minute once the season starts, specifically on the defensive end.

His offensive rebounding numbers have fallen off a cliff over the past two seasons, but that is directly correlated with his increase in 3-point attempts. On the offensive end, he will be asked to camp in the corner on plenty of sets, which will help space the floor for both De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley.

On the defensive side of the ball, Dedmon is active. His 1.1 blocks per game would have led the Kings last season and his 1.1 steals per game is .1 less than what Cauley-Stein averaged. He held his opponents to a -1 percent field goal percent overall, including -1.5 percent from 3-point range and -5 percent inside of six feet.

Weaknesses

Dedmon has struggled to stay healthy over the last two seasons, missing 20 games in 2017-18 and 18 during last season. He’s a young 30 as far as games played, posting just 350 regular-season games, including 176 starts, but he needs to stay on the court.

He’s limited in what he does, but that might not be a bad thing. The Kings don’t plan to run the offense through him and there is a possibility that he will see an increase in 3-point attempts while starting on the frontline with Bagley. 

The Kings need Dedmon to get back to the player that posted +30 percent defensive rebounding percentages. With Bagley hitting the break as a rim runner, there will be opportunities for him that he may not have had in Atlanta. He needs to be a force on the defensive glass. 

Dedmon shot a sparkling 81.4 percent from the free-throw line, but he made it to the stripe just 113 times. He’s not a focal point of the offense, but drawing and playing through contact is important, especially when he has the ability to knock down freebies at such a high clip.

Sacramento needs its new center to be a rim protector. His 1.1 blocks per game were a career-best and the Kings need that number and maybe a little more this season.

Path to Improvement

Shoot the 3-ball. Stay healthy. Block shots. Crush the glass. 

The Kings aren’t trying to invent the wheel when it comes to Dedmon. They chased him in free agency because he is a perfect fit next to Bagley. 

His path to improvement is to do more of what he already does. He doesn’t need to learn any new tricks. If he can average one more 3-point and free throw attempts per game, hit the defensive glass hard and play goalkeeper, the Kings spent their money on the right guy. 

Playing closer to 75 games would be an added bonus.

Projection

Dedmon is going to start the season as the starter, but there are plenty of young bodies ready to steal his minutes. He’ll likely split time with Harry Giles early in the season, but Richaun Holmes is part of the equation as well.

[RELATED: Is Bagley ready to take leap in sophomore season?]

An early prediction has Dedmon averaging 10 points, eight rebounds, a block and a steal in 24 minutes per game. He’ll shoot plenty of triples and be asked to do the dirty work. 

If he stumbles, the Kings have replacements in the pipeline. If those young options don’t show the type of improvement the team needs to see, Dedmon could be asked to play closer to 30 minutes per game. 

How Kings' versatility at forward gives Luke Walton plenty of options

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USATI

How Kings' versatility at forward gives Luke Walton plenty of options

What a difference a year makes.

Sacramento entered the 2018-19 season without a starting level small forward and the power spot was taken by a rookie and an unknown free-agent acquisition. Fast forward 12 months and the Kings have all kinds of options when it comes to the forward rotation.

Head coach Luke Walton has a stable of serviceable players to choose from. He also has a variety of player types, which should help him adapt his rotations to adjust to the opposition or create mismatches of his own.

Injuries play a role in every season, but the Kings are as deep and versatile at the forward position as they have been in years. 

Here is a look at the group of players Walton has to work with and how he might use his players on a nightly basis.

The Starters

Harrison Barnes signed a massive, 4-year, $85 million deal in the offseason and he is the long-term solution for the Kings at the starting small forward position. He came to Sacramento in a midseason move from the Dallas Mavericks where he played predominantly as a stretch four. Those skills will come in handy with Sacramento.

Marvin Bagley is the heir apparent at the power forward spot and the future is now. The No. 2 overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft has star potential and he gives Walton a legitimate low post scoring option in the halfcourt offense. He’s also 20 years old and ready to take on a ton of minutes in year two.

Where Barnes can play both the three and the four, Bagley can shift between the power forward and center position. He has the height and athleticism to man the spot and would be perfect against small-ball centers.
Both of these players are primed to have major roles in the Kings’ rotation for the foreseeable future.

Bagley is the rebounder and scorer. Barnes is the shooter and defender. While they are going to take time to gel on the court, it’s not a bad starting forward combination.

The Reserves

Nemanja Bjelica joined the Kings at the end of the free-agent period in the summer of 2018, inking a three-year $20.5 million contract. He had played limited minutes during his time in Minnesota but instantly earned a spot in Dave Joerger’s starting lineup as a floor-spacing stretch four.

Bjelica played very well in his first season in Sacramento, but it’s clear he was just holding down the fort while Bagley got a season of experience under his belt. He averaged 9.6 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.9 assists in 23.2 minutes per game last season, but nothing the only thing guaranteed in his second season in Sacramento is his salary.

General manager Vlade Divac added Trevor Ariza as part of his offseason haul this summer. The 34-year-old forward signed a 2-year, $25 million contract, although his final year, like Bjelica’s, is only partially guaranteed for next season.

Ariza struggled early last year but made an impact for the Washington Wizards after a midseason trade. In 34.1 minutes per game with the Wizards, Ariza posted 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

Both players are considered strong shooters from the perimeter, although Bjelica hit a higher percentage last season. Ariza has historically been a better defender than Bjelica and he is more versatile in a switching defense.

While the Kings advertised Bjelica as a combo forward when they signed him, Bjelica is a stretch four that could possibly even spend a few minutes at the five in smaller lineups. Ariza could steal a few minutes at the four, but his primary position is at the small forward spot.

Bjelica and Ariza play very different styles of basketball when they step on the court, but they both help space the floor for point guard De’Aaron Fox to run. They also open the key for Bagley to do damage in the post.

The Other Guys

Versatility is the name of the game with the Kings’ 2019-20 roster. They have players that can fill a variety of roles and perhaps their most versatile player is Bogdan Bogdanovic.

After blowing up in the FIBA World Cup, the third-year wing is primed to take his game to the next level. Unfortunately, the backcourt is backed with Fox, Cory Joseph and Buddy Hield all ready to play major minutes.

Walton is going to need to steal time for Bogdanovic from somewhere and it’s likely going to come at the small forward spot. That means fewer minutes for more conventional wings, but Bogdanovic is a catalyst player and the centerpiece of the second unit.

Rookie Justin James can play the two and the three, but the likelihood of him cracking the rotation this season is slim at best. He’ll have to bide his time and wait for an opportunity to arise.

Prediction

Walton has all kinds of options at his two forward spots. Maybe even too many options.

Bagley and Barnes are the starters and will play a minimum of 32 minutes per game each. It’s possible Bagley can steal a few of those minutes as a small-ball five, but the center spot is jam-packed as well. Barnes will play 20-plus minutes at the three and then another 10-12 minutes at the four.

[RELATED: Bagley ready to take leap in sophomore season?]

With Hield set to play 32-34 minutes at the two, Bogdanovic will need 12-14 minutes at the three, which might leave a total of 20 minutes for Ariza and Bjelica.
Both Ariza and Bjelica bring the ability to shoot and open the offense. Ariza is a more switchable player on the defensive side of the ball.

Injuries over the course of an 82 game season will open opportunities, but Walton can’t play 11 or 12 players on a nightly basis. Someone is going to get minimal time in the rotation and have to wait for their chance to shine.