Sacramento Kings’ promising youth movement suggests its no longer most dysfunctional franchise in pro sports

Young players give Sacramento a bold new look

Frank Mason III, one of 10 Kings players under 25, at Golden 1 Center Monday.

Frank Mason III, one of 10 Kings players under 25, at Golden 1 Center Monday.

photo by Kimani OKEARAH / @nbalensface

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Most NBA bosses would not bother showing up for a meaningless preseason game, but Sacramento Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadivé sat courtside at the Golden 1 Center last Monday during his team’s debut. He surveyed the hardwood with inscrutable eyes, sporting a baggy dark-colored sweatsuit and purple polo. General manager Vlade Divac towered to his right as the duo evaluated its new-look roster, which includes 10 players age 25 or under. The Kings went all-in on a youth movement this summer, and fan sentiment is that, in the long run, the Kings better succeed with this rebuild or die trying.

Top brass finally slammed the reset button this summer after 11 straight seasons in which the team missed the playoffs (two on Divac’s watch) while never surpassing 33 wins. A miserable stretch by any professional-sports standard, replete with enough drama to rival the entire seven seasons of Game of Thrones (which I will mercifully not rehash).

Anyway, on October 2, fans so dedicated as to make an appearance in the half-filled arena (still that new-car smell!) actually witnessed a victory, complete with impressive hustle. It was merely a notch on the pre-season belt, and against a vacation-mode San Antonio Spurs. But the young regime flashed reasons for optimism.

Near the end of the first half, and with the shot clock hemorrhaging seconds, rookie Justin Jackson—the 22-year-old “veteran” of this year’s draft class—encountered Manu Ginobili up in his grill. Jackson swung the ball to back-up point guard and fellow initiate Frank Mason III, who is 23. This sub-6-footer flipped the rock toward the rim, where 7-foot-1-inch bruiser Georgios Papagiannis—in his third year but still under the legal drinking age—emerged from the scrum like the Greek god Hermes. “Big Papa” delivered a savage throwdown over Spurs defenders, a veritable Lob City moment that drew feverish applause from a smattering of Golden 1 faithful thirsty for highlight-reel moments.

That alley-oop jam was a peek at the team’s promise—a glimpse that’s proven fleeting during the past 15 seasons.

Just ask Grant Napear, longtime sports-radio host and Kings play-by-play announcer. The 2017-18 season marks his 30th year covering the franchise, which means he’s been down the “rebuild” and “youth movement” roads many times over. And yet Napear, known for his no-bullshit take and rabid dissent, feels the Kings franchise finally turned things around.

“The whole atmosphere is night and day from what it’s been in the recent past,” Napear told me during a recent phone chat.

How is it, then, that the very franchise ridiculed a mere eight months ago by the NBA talking heads—and even fellow ownership and brass—has steadied course? “I think it’s really simple,” Napear explained: “DeMarcus Cousins isn’t here any more.”

It’s no secret that, if given the right team environment and leadership, Cousins could be a premier big man. But in Sacramento, the all-star was malnourished by a revolving door of coaches and steady diet of losing. Cousins also never kicked the on-court bickering and behind-the-scenes ego trips. And inside the organization, there was polarity as to Cousins’ future: folks who wanted to ink him to a max deal, and those urging divorce.

Ranadivé eventually balked at signing a $200 million-plus check, and Divac moved Cousins to New Orleans hours after last year’s All-Star game in a deal that, at the time, was widely ridiculed.

“But that deal has aged very well,” at least according to Sacramento-based reporter and founder of Aaron Bruski, who’s covered the Kings for more than a decade. This past summer, the team received comparable value in its trade for Cousins as Chicago did for Jimmy Butler or Indiana for Paul George.

And “there hasn’t been any drama with the Kings for the first four or five months,” Bruski said, adding that, at the team’s media day earlier this month, the organization seemed “calm and relaxed.”

Is it possible? Are the Kings no longer the most dysfunctional franchise in U.S. sports?

The youth movement

De’Aaron Fox, who may be NBA Rookie of the Year, hits his first shot of the preseason.

photo by Kimani OKEARAH/ @nbalensface

There’s an irony to the Kings’ newfound zen, of course, given its roster dotted with unproven teenagers and 20-somethings, including newly minted franchise-bearer De’Aaron Fox, the 19-year-old No. 5 pick out of the University of Kentucky.

At last Monday’s debut, Fox exuded this calmness while racking up 16 points on seven-for-eight shooting. It’s a minuscule sample size, but it fulfilled the summer’s widespread hope, and fuels predictions that the rookie could be the best of his draft class.

Napear said he’s chatted with Fox on several occasions and praised the hopeful’s precociousness. “When you speak to him, you would swear that you’re talking to someone who’s 29 years old,” he said, specifically citing Fox’s clear-headedness.

“He told me, ’I don’t let things that I can’t control affect me,’” Napear said. Those are refreshing words for fans hoping the teen phenom will deviate from the path of Cousins, who seemingly never climbed a hill he wouldn’t die on.

The good news for the faithful is that the team’s destiny by no means hinges on whether Fox blossoms into the next Russell Westbrook. Again, there are nine other teammates under the age of 25.

Buddy Hield, whom the team acquired in the Cousins deal, likely won’t manifest as some kind of perennial all-star. But this season will be a benchmark for the 23-year-old’s development.

Forward Skal Labissière, 21, exhibited flashes of fast-paced, vertical brilliance last season, and Bruski claims he now looks an inch taller and even stronger. Harry Giles, another 19-year-old, was a marquee high-school player and top-five prospect before tearing both his ACL and MCL in 2014. Now, he’s court-ready for the first time in a long while.

In a best-case scenario, swingman Jackson will emerge as a shutdown perimeter defender who can face off against elite scorers. Malachi Richardson, 21, is a fan favorite already, what with his long-range skills and speed. And there’s Bogdan Bogdanovic, the 25-year-old who dominated in Europe—and could be a sleeper force in America.

Bruski says one of the biggest obstacles to the development of these young hopefuls might simply be time on the floor. “There are frankly too many players and not enough minutes,” he observed.

He’s right: None of these 10 has so far cracked coach Dave Joerger’s starting lineup, and the organization is paying older veterans Vince Carter (40), George Hill (31), Kosta Koufos (28), Zach Randolph (36) and Garrett Temple (31) some $57 million, nearly two-thirds of the Kings’ active-roster salaries. It’s unclear how Joerger will juggle the old-new mix—and how soon he too will ride or die with the young Kings.

Napear, Bruski and most reporters that cover the team agree that fans should temper expectations for this season. “The Kings aren’t trying to win now,” Napear said, a concession that was difficult for Ranadivé during his nascent ownership.

Bruski expects a controlled style of play, with the “slightest signs of development” being a premium over wins. He said the defense will feature some “major holes,” and there will be those brutal blowout nights that leave fans running for the big rabbit outside the arena.

So goes the reboot. But Napear recalled how, five years ago, “the Golden State Warriors were the Sacramento Kings”: That team in the Bay had just traded its best player, Monta Ellis, and its owner was roundly booed during public appearances.

“And look what happened to them,” Napear said. They developed into a champion “not because they signed all these free agents, but because they drafted well.”

Las Vegas oddsmakers predict no more than 27 wins for this year’s Kings, a number that would perpetuate the franchise’s recent legacy of cellar-dwelling. Bruski’s eyeing 35. Napear said he’d wait until after the preseason to prognosticate this year’s ignominious shortcoming.

Like many OG fans, though, his eye is on a different prize, something just beyond this season’s horizon. And he reserves the right, after all these bad years, to keep up hope: “In the NBA, these things change in a hurry.”