Ready, set, summer league.
Whether it’s in Sacramento or Las Vegas, the buildup to summer league is a frantic race. When rosters were released the day before the California Classic, just two days after the NBA Draft, they came with fine print stating, “Roster as of August 1 (subject to change).”
The only thing we knew for sure coming into the opening game at Golden 1 Center was that former Kings Sixth Man of the Year Bobby Jackson would coach the team.
Jackson, who had worked as an assistant on both Dave Joerger and Luke Walton’s staff in Sacramento, transitioned to a new role as head coach of the Kings’ G League affiliate in Stockton at the end of May.
Handing him the keys to the summer league squad was a stroke of genius that not only allowed Jackson a shot to get his feet wet in the league, but also gave him the opportunity to build chemistry with some of the players he will coach later this year.
The 0-2 start at the California Classic wasn’t how Jackson envisioned his coaching career beginning. His 5-0 run in Las Vegas showed growth and a whole lot of promise. It also delivered the Kings their second Las Vegas Summer League Championship.
“Bobby did a really good job in training camp emphasizing that we have to play hard, we’ve got to stay together and if we do those things, we’re going to be successful,” rookie point guard Davion Mitchell said. “Even the California Classic, when we lost those games, he wasn’t down on us. He kept our confidence up throughout the summer league.”
With Mitchell as his focal point, Jackson built an identity for his team. They played a style of defense that you rarely see in an exhibition season like summer league, especially when you consider the lack of experience and time together.
The Kings’ summer league team bought into what Jackson was selling, which is a positive development for both him as a coach and the Kings’ franchise as a whole.
“I told them training camp was going to be hard, but I kept preaching teamwork, chemistry, having each other's backs, defending at a high level, making other teams uncomfortable, and taking things away,” Jackson said following his team’s final victory. “The offensive side of the ball will come, as long as we approach it in the right way.”
Offense isn’t usually an issue in summer league. Players come in ready to hoist shots and try to show off their scoring ability. But getting a team to lock in defensively takes a different message and somehow Jackson delivered it in a way that made sense to his team.
“We competed every day at practice and I wanted to create a competitive environment that allowed the guys to be successful and I knew would carry over onto the floor,” Jackson said.
The final game was just a continuation of a trend. For the tournament, Sacramento averaged 14 steals per game as a team. Against the Celtics, they finished with 18 steals, which played a part in Boston posting 28 turnovers to just seven for the Kings.
Mitchell was the star defender, but his teammates fed off of him. Jackson empowered the 22-year-old rookie to pick up players full court and play to his strengths. This led to plenty of mistakes by opposing guards.
It wasn’t just Mitchell who was impactful. Players like Louis King and Emanuel Terry were able to come away with five steals each while plenty of Kings registered multiple steals in every game.
This was an outstanding learning experience, not just for the players, but for Jackson as well. He spoke on improving his organizational skills moving forward and examining some of the stylistic things that both worked and needed improvement.
At least a few of the players on the summer league squad will play minutes under Jackson in Stockton this season. Jahmi’us Ramsey, Robert Woodard and Neemias Queta will likely all be starters for the G League team to open the season. King, who is on a two-way contract, will likely spend part of the season in Stockton as well.
Jackson won’t have Mitchell to anchor his defense, but if he can find a way to get the Stockton Kings to buy in as he did with the summer league team, he should be just fine.
Sacramento was looking for a few players to stand out and show something unexpected. That happened, but maybe more importantly, the organization found a coach that can connect with their younger players at the G League level. That could pay huge dividends down the road.