De'Aaron Fox making most of time with Gregg Popovich at Team USA camp

De'Aaron Fox making most of time with Gregg Popovich at Team USA camp

LOS ANGELES -- Team USA is a complicated jigsaw puzzle that head coach Gregg Popovich has to figure out on the fly. How do you fill a roster with players that complement each other, have them compete for a roster spot over two weeks and then unleash them against teams on a world stage?

Adding to the equation, Popovich doesn’t have a roster of perennial All-Stars that fit into some complex pecking order. His core group will consist of NBA role players and then a group of young guys who still are finding their way in the league.

In Sacramento, De’Aaron Fox is the ring leader of one of the fastest teams in the league. While he averaged 17.2 points per game in his second season, he also is the primary distributor for a squad that scored 114.2 points per game last season.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to project where Fox might end up as a player and his tour of duty with the national team under Popovich might help him reach his ceiling faster than if he spent the summer working on his game on his own.

The legendary Spurs coach is one of the most respected minds in the game. He ranks third all-time in wins, he’s led San Antonio to 22 consecutive playoff appearances and he has five championship rings. When he speaks, players listen.

“He doesn’t even like using the term aggressive, because, what does that mean?,” Fox told NBC Sports California about his conversations with Popovich. “But he’s definitely staying on me about continuing to attack.”

After a dismal day for Team USA on Wednesday that saw the group fall in back-to-back games to a collection of G-Leaguers brought in to scrimmage, the mood was different Thursday. While the scoreboards were left at 0-0, it was clear that Fox and the other 14 players vying for spots on the team that will represent the USA at the FIBA World Cup made strides.

“It’s really just continuing to put pressure on the rim,” Fox said. “It could be selfish, because when you go in to attack, that’s the first option, to try and score the ball. But when you have that mentality, guys are going to come in because you draw the defense and that’s when you’re able to make plays for others.”

It’s not that Dave Joerger didn’t ask Fox to attack last season in Sacramento or that Luke Walton hasn’t already handed his starting point guard a road map for the upcoming campaign. They both think highly of Fox’s talent and consider him one of the franchise’s cornerstones.

But Popovich is an outside observer of sorts. He is trying to push the right buttons and get the most out of his talent in a limited amount of time. He sees where Fox can dominate the game and he’s demanding something very specific from the explosive guard.

“He stays on me,” Fox said of Popovich. “With him, he wants guys to do one, two, maybe three things and continue to do it well, continue to do it great."

The 21-year-old guard was a member of the Select Team before last week. He quickly has become one of the standouts through camp and appears to be a lock for the World Cup roster. Not only is he the fastest player on the team and possibly the entire league, but he also has the ability to play defense at an elite level.

During last week’s scrimmage against the Select Team, he was a disruptive force, finishing with three steals and two blocks in just 15 minutes of action.

“For him, defense is his priority right now,” Fox said. “We know we have the talent to score the ball, but we know we’ll win games with defense.”

Team USA has a friendly against Spain on Friday evening which might give a glimpse into how Popovich and his staff intend to use Fox moving forward.

[RELATED: Kings' Fox, Barnes building strong bond at Team USA camp]

Even if his Team USA experience ends before the squad jumps on a plane for Australia and then China, it’s clear that Fox is taking to the coaching, absorbing as much as possible and trying to improve his game through this process.

Kings' Marvin Bagley remains confident despite rusty showing in return

Kings' Marvin Bagley remains confident despite rusty showing in return

SACRAMENTO -- Midway through the first quarter, Kings head coach Luke Walton looked down his bench and called on Marvin Bagley to go to the scorer's table and check-in. It was a big moment for Bagley, who had missed the previous 22 games with a broken right thumb.

Moments later, Bagley faced up his defender and hoisted up an 18-foot jumper. The shot attempt sailed over the rim, missing everything, much to the chagrin of all 16,723 fans at Golden 1 Center.

The moment was a reminder that Bagley is a 20-year-old kid who hasn’t played in seven weeks and will need some time to find his rhythm before he takes the expected leap into stardom.

“He didn’t play his best, he’s trying to get his feet back,” Buddy Hield said after the Kings’ 94-93 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. “His best basketball is yet to come.”

Bagley showed flashes of brilliance and bouts of impatience. He finished the game with 11 points on 5-of-13 shooting to go with six rebounds and a block. He managed to make it through 23 minutes of play without needing an oxygen mask and he ran the floor like a gazelle.

“I had to get my wind back the first three times up and down,” Bagley admitted. “But then after that, I was kind of back to normal. I feel pretty good, I was able to get my second wind and keep pushing, so it was good overall.”

Taken with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, Bagley opened the season as the Kings’ starting power forward. He’ll likely regain that spot, but for now, the team is playing well with Nemanja Bjelica at the four.

Walton used Bagley primarily at center, splitting minutes down the middle with Richaun Holmes. While Bagley has a more advanced offensive game, Holmes is a top-notch pick-and-roll player and a far superior defender at this point in his career.

The combination worked against the Thunder, but there will have to come a time when Walton figures out how to use both bigs on the court at the same time.

[RELATED: Kings in position to redeem themselves after playoff stumble last year]

What was evident from his time on the floor is that Bagley still has springs in his legs and his ability to get off the floor in traffic is elite.

It will take time for Bagley to completely find his game. A seven-week absence is a long stretch for any player, let alone a sophomore trying to work himself into a new role. The fact that he took 13 shots in his return to the court shows that he hasn’t lost his confidence and he’s ready to step in and being a primary scoring option.

“I mean, I’ll never lose confidence,” Bagley said. “My confidence is through the room no matter what’s going on during the game, no matter who’s coaching, no matter what. My confidence is always going to be there and that’s how I have always been. I know what I’m capable of doing. I know the kind of work I put in. My confidence is sky high so that’s never an issue for me.”

Bagley will get another opportunity to build on his first game back when the Kings host the New York Knicks on Friday. After losing 10 straight, New York held on to beat the Warriors on Wednesday evening for just their fifth victory of the season.

The Knicks are in the bottom of the NBA’s standings, but they have a big, physical, veteran frontline that will test Bagley and the rest of the Kings bigs.

Kings in position to redeem themselves after playoff stumble last year

Kings in position to redeem themselves after playoff stumble last year

SACRAMENTO -- Is it too early to scoreboard watch? Not if you’ve missed the playoffs 13 consecutive seasons like the Sacramento Kings.

After an emotional road trip that included a brutal overtime loss followed by two incredible wins in the final seconds of games in Dallas and Houston, the Kings looked tired Wednesday night at Golden 1 Center.

And then they looked like someone reminded them what a win would do for the team in the standings.

Behind a lively crowd, the Kings stormed back against the Oklahoma City Thunder and pulled off a come-from-behind 94-93 victory to move to 11-13 on the season.

With the Phoenix Suns losing on Wednesday, the Kings caught them in the standings. After an 0-5 start to the season, Luke Walton’s squad is now locked in a three-way for the seventh spot in the Western Conference standings with the Suns and the Thunder.

“It was hard, the first five games, especially after the Charlotte game at home,” Bogdan Bogdanovic said after hitting the game-winning 3-pointer with 13.4 seconds remaining. “It was really, really hard and we should never forget that feeling, especially right now when we feel good.”

Sacramento fans booed the Kings off the court following the team’s 118-111 loss to the Hornets on Oct. 30. There was confusion and anguish in the locker room, but the players accepted responsibility and came back out two days later and beat the Utah Jazz.

“We should use that as an experience, as an advantage and motivation,” Bogdanovic said of the dark times the team has already gone through this season.

The Kings aren’t counting their chickens before they hatch. They learned that lesson the hard way last year when they faded down the stretch in a season filled with promise.

After moving into the seventh and eighth positions on multiple occasions throughout the 82-game schedule, they dropped seven of their final 10 contests and finished nine games out of the eighth seed in the Western Conference.

“Now we know how hard it is and how every game is important and we have to be locked in,” Bogdanovic insisted. “First game after a road trip was sloppy, like this one and we have to be locked in to play a much better game against New York.”

[RELATED: Fox feeling better, believes he's close to Kings return]

This is an important stretch of games for the Kings. They have climbed within two games of the .500 mark with games against the Knicks and Warriors on the docket. New York and Golden State have a combined 10-41 record on the season, but Sacramento is not in a position to look past anyone.

It’s really early to scoreboard watch. It was also really early when the Kings went winless to start the season.

Sacramento is motivated by the chase for the postseason. The Kings have a little taste of it now and a soft spot in the schedule. Let’s see how they react to the opportunity this time around.