Kings

Source: Kings' De'Aaron Fox leaves Team USA to focus on making playoffs

Source: Kings' De'Aaron Fox leaves Team USA to focus on making playoffs

Well, so much for that.

Kings point guard De'Aaron Fox had been a standout this summer with Team USA, drawing rave reviews from just about everyone associated with the program, including head coach Gregg Popovich.

Despite only playing six minutes in Friday's exhibition win over Spain, Popovich informed the media that all 14 finalists, including Fox and Harrison Barnes, would be heading with the team to Australia as they continue their prep.

But Fox apparently had other ideas, as the Kentucky product has withdrawn from Team USA, a source confirmed to NBC Sports California's James Ham.

Yahoo! Sports' Chris Haynes was the first to report the news, noting Fox is choosing to focus on getting the Kings back to the playoffs. 

That is a bit of a shocker.

Last season, the Kings took a step in the right direction when Fox, Barnes, Marvin Bagley and Buddy Hield led them to a 39-43 record and kept them in the playoff hunt for much of the year.

But the Western Conference got a lot tougher over the offseason. With Anthony Davis now a Laker, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George joining the Clippers, Mike Conley being acquired by the Jazz and the Rockets swapping Chris Paul for Russell Westbrook, the West will be the ultimate gauntlet this year.

And let's not forget about the Warriors, who despite the loss of Kevin Durant, still will be a threat.

[RELATED: Fox making most of Team USA time with Popovich]

A number of Western Conference stars elected not to participate in Team USA this summer, hoping instead to put all their focus on a title run next season in the wide-open NBA.

After a few weeks with the Red, White, and Blue, Fox apparently has chosen to put all his time and energy into helping the Kings snap their playoff drought.

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 player very styles, but they 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.

 

Kings player profile: Can Nemanja Bjelica be effective in reduced role?

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USATSI

Kings player profile: Can Nemanja Bjelica be effective in reduced role?

Nemanja Bjelica was on his way back to Europe when he got the call from fellow Serbians Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic last summer. After three seasons in Minnesota, the sharpshooting big joined the Kings on a three-year, $20.5 million contract and instantly stepped into Sacramento’s starting lineup. 

While he struggled for a stretch in the middle of the season, Bjelica became a valuable member of the rotation and posted career-high numbers across the board for the Kings. 

His ability to create space and spread the floor opened up the Kings’ offense. His high basketball IQ made the players around him better.

Bjelica’s role is likely to change dramatically in Year No. 2 in Sacramento, but his ability to hit the 3-ball and impact the game in multiple ways will earn him minutes during the season. 

Strengths

Before a midseason slump, Bjelica was one of the Kings’ most efficient players. He started 70 games for Dave Joerger at power forward and he figured out ways to impact the game on a nightly basis. 

Through the first two months of the season, Bjelica knocked down 51.5 percent (35-for-68) from 3-point range. He finished the season at 40.1 percent from long distance on 257 attempts, providing some much needed spacing from an unlikely spot on the floor. 

Bjelica was particularly deadly from the top of the key as a trailer in the Kings’ uptempo offense. As the season wore on, he continued to attempt shots from further and further out, which hurt his 3-point percentage, but allowed gaps for De’Aaron Fox to work with

Not known as a leaper, Bjelica is crafty around the rim, hitting 63.5 percent on 189 attempts inside of three feet. He also was efficient from three to 10 feet, knocking down 52-for-118 for 44.1 percent. Bjelica took just 29 shots from 10 feet out to the 3-point line, showing nice shot discipline. On the offensive side of the ball, he knows who he is and plays to his strengths.

Despite limited athleticism, Bjelica averaged 5.8 rebounds in 23.2 minutes per. His 12.8 percent rebound percentage was fifth on the Kings last season and his per-36-minute average of 8.9 isn’t bad for a player who plays heavy minutes away from the rim.

Bjelica is a smart player who rarely gets out position. His opponents ran a -1.6 field goal percentage against, including a -5.3 percent from behind the 3-point line. He also blocked 0.7 shots per game, which ranked second on the team last season.

Weaknesses

Bjelica is who he is, which is a solid NBA stretch four. While he is an intelligent player, he lacks elite athleticism and quickness, which limits his ability to play multiple positions. 

The rigors of an 82-game schedule appeared to wear down Bjelica, especially with the pace the Kings play at. He needs to come into camp in great shape and ready to run, even if it’s as a trailer in the uptempo offense.

While he’s passable on the boards, second-year big man Marvin Bagley projects as a very good to excellent rebounder at the same position. With starting center Dewayne Dedmon more of a perimeter player, it’s unlikely the two play minutes together. 

On the defensive side of the ball, Bjelica is more of a stretch four/five than a three/four. His inability to guard small forwards will hurt him when Luke Walton goes to switching defenses.

Path to Improvement

It’s possible that playing deep into the summer with the Serbian national team will help the 31-year-old come into camp in prime shape. With the pace the Kings play at, it’s a must for everyone on the roster, but specifically for a player like Bjelica, who plays a different speed than most of his teammates.

There is a very good chance that Bjelica will see reduced minutes, which might be a good thing. If he can continue to be extremely effective in a reserve role, he can carve out a niche as a floor spacer alongside young bigs like Harry Giles and Richaun Holmes.

Projection

Bjelica was a quiet difference-maker for the Kings during the 2018-19 season, but he might get lost in the shuffle in head coach Luke Walton’s uptempo offense. 

Bagley is going to play 30-plus minutes per game at the power forward spot. Harrison Barnes will steal minutes at the four as well. Bjelica’s shooting is an elite skill that will keep him in the rotation, but he’s in a dog fight for minutes.

[RELATED: Is Ariza lost in Kings' shuffle?]

Walton is going to need a floor spacer to play alongside Giles and Holmes, but as the season develops, he might have other options. 

A conservative projection has Bjelica averaging 5.5-6.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and an assist in 12-14 minutes per game off the Kings’ bench. He’ll shoot over 40 percent from 3-point range, but it’s likely he’ll lose minutes to more versatile players.