SACRAMENTO --After a shaky preseason and a load of questions coming into the season, the Sacramento Kings held their own in the season opener Wednesday evening against the Utah Jazz.
The final outcome was a 123-117 loss, but considering all the variable coming into the night, it was an impressive showing for a young group. All five starters scored in double-figures for Sacramento, led by Willie Cauley-Stein’s 23 points. For much of the night, they were the aggressive team and it showed up in the box score.
Here are two positives and two negatives that can be taken from Game 1 of the regular season.
Turn up the Tempo
Sacramento pushed the tempo at every turn, creating a frenetic paced game that played directly to their strengths. De’Aaron Fox was the ringleader, but everyone got involved. The bigs rebounded and instantly fired the ball forward. When the Jazz scored, the Kings had the ball back in play within moments and heading back the other way.
“They came out with a lot of energy,” Donovan Mitchell said following the game. “You could tell from the tip they were ready. We didn’t do a good job of defending that, playing with the same energy they had.”
Last season, the Jazz ranked second in the league in both points allowed and defensive rating. In the opener, Sacramento shot 51.6 percent from the field and dropped in 117 points. In addition, the Kings turned the ball over just nine times as a team, with eight of those coming from primary ball handlers in Fox, Yogi Ferrell and Buddy Hield.
It’s just one game, but the brand of basketball the Kings exhibited against an elite defensive opponent was fun and exciting. They played well as a group and shared in the spotlight.
Dave Joerger left everyone in suspense until the just before tipoff. When the starting unit of Fox, Ferrell, Hield, Cauley-Stein and Nemanja Bjelica hit the floor, it wasn’t a shock, but it also wasn’t expected.
Each player brought something to table in the opener. Fox looked confident in running the team and showed off his elite ability to change direction on the fly. He finished the night with 21 points and seven assists while playing solid defense from start to finish.
Ferrell started in the place of the injured Bogdan Bogdanovic. He wasn’t as aggressive looking for his shot as he could have been, but he hit 2-of-3 from long range and a perfect 4-for-4 from the stripe. He also acted as a second point guard in the lineup and helped Fox push the pace.
Hield quietly posted 19 points on 9-of-18 shooting and added six rebounds. He missed all but one of his four 3-point attempts, shot just one free throw attempt (Crowder technical) and turned the ball over four times, but he’s adjusting to playing a new position.
The frontline of Bjelica and Cauley-Stein were very good. After toiling away for the last three seasons in Minnesota, Bjelica showed that he’s more than just a shooter, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and dishing out two assists. He’s a high basketball IQ player that helps space the floor and he brought energy on both ends of the court.
Cauley-Stein attacked Rudy Gobert in the paint. He got into the chest of the reigning Defensive Player of Year and scored over the top of him on multiple occasions. In 38 minutes of action, the 7-footer stuffed the stat sheet for 23 points, seven rebounds, four assists, two blocks and a steal. He needs to grab more rebounds, but this was a very good start for the free agent to be.
Second Unit Blues
The starting unit jumped out to a big 16-point first quarter lead for Sacramento. When Joerger turned to his bench, things went south pretty quickly. Joerger used Justin Jackson all over the court, playing the 6-foot-8 wing 30 minutes off the bench. He shot 4-of-10 from the floor and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, but his versatility and size makes him one of the few options the team has to defend against small forwards and stretch fours.
After playing just 14 games last season and appearing in one preseason game, Iman Shumpert looked rusty. In the locker room after the game, the veteran was excited just to be back on the court. He played 17 minutes off the bench, scoring five points on 2-of-7 shooting. All of his shots came from 15-feet and out and he ran a team worst -29 in the plus/minus category. Like Jackson, Shumpert is one of the more versatile defenders the team has, but he’ll need time to get comfortable after a long absence.
Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles were caught up in the Bjelica and Cauley-Stein show. The rookie bigs are expected to contribute this season for Sacramento, but they played a combined 21 minutes in the opener. It’s not what anyone expected. Bagley scored six points and grabbed five rebounds in 12 minutes of action. Giles played less than 10 minutes, finishing with two points, a rebound and an assists while picking up four fouls. It’s the first game of many in what should be two very long and successful careers. No reason to panic.
With Fox, Ferrell and Hield playing the bulk of the minutes, Frank Mason played just four minutes, scoring three points on the night.
Defensive Woes Continue
It will take time for the Kings to gel as a defensive unit. Until then, they will continue to get into shootouts. Against Utah and they’re high-efficiency pick-and-roll offense, the Kings tried to limit the production of Mitchell and Gobert. It worked for stretches, but it allowed the Jazz to light the Kings up from the perimeter.
Joe Ingles dropped 17 of his 22 points in the first half, burning the Kings for a perfect 3-of-3 from behind the arc before the intermission. Overall, Utah shot 13-of-27 (48.1 percent) from 3-point range, outscoring the Kings 39-21 on the deep ball.
Sacramento made a few adjustments, but that led to a 15-point second half for Mitchell. It’s a balancing act and Utah is a very good team, but the Kings can’t allow their opponent to shoot 51.9 percent from the field on a nightly basis.