Thursday, August 23, 2012

In Unsteady Times, the Kings Deserve Attention

DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans in less trying times. (Sacramento Bee/Jose Luis Villegas)

Southern California has a stranglehold on the state's basketball market, long entrenched by years of Los Angeles Lakers dominance and bolstered by the recent emergence of the Clippers as a postseason team. Trades netting All-Star caliber talents last winter (Chris Paul to the Clips) and this summer (Steve Nash and, eventually, Dwight Howard to the Lake Show) ensure that any Western Conference contender will have to play well in SoCal in order to prove their postseason worth.

As southern California basketball flourishes, though, things aren't as full of life in Northern California. The Golden State Warriors have scorer after scorer on the roster, and while an exciting offense keeps them from being dead in the bay water, they don't project as a playoff team in 2012-13.

The Sacramento Kings finished at No. 28 in Marc Stein's final NBA power rankings for last season — two spots out of last place. While it is only one notch higher than the Warriors ranked, make no mistake: the Kings are levels ahead of the Warriors, and a majority of NBA teams, when it comes to being interesting.

The Kings are mercurial. An enigmatic presence that deserves more attention than it will receive. There's reason to invest time in Queen City's NBA franchise, even if there's not much winning to be had by said team.

The average age of the 14 players currently on the roster is 25.35. Historically, NBA players' performance peaks as they work through their late 20s. The elder statesmen are shooting guards John Salmons and Francisco Garcia at 32 and 31, respectively.

Thomas Robinson. (Hector Amezcua/Sacramento Bee)
Thomas Robinson, the freshly drafted power forward out of Kansas, will have the same growing pains as any rookie, but he'll be fun to watch in the post with footwork that belies his 21 years and a serviceable short-to-mid-range jumper. Robinson will also pair with DeMarcus Cousins to form one of the more formidable frontcourt tandems in the league.

And, yes, Cousins is a bright spot for the Kings. As much of a headache as he can be — and there are still maturity issues for him to work through — Cousins posted better stats in most categories last year and grabbed nearly 50 more offensive rebounds than in his rookie campaign, despite playing in 17 fewer games because of the lockout-shortened season.

The guard play will be something to watch, too. Tyreke Evans, after winning Rookie of the Year in 2009-10, has produced two seasons of play that didn't live up to expectations and is coming off a case of plantar fasciitis that some will use to asterisk 2012-13. There's still a chance — and, surely, hope among Kings fans —for Evans to return to form. In order to succeed with the pieces around him, though, he may be wise to dish the ball more often. His 16.4 PER last season ranked a tick above the league average of 15. In the final year of his rookie contract, 'Reke has to know that it's time to earn his next deal and this is the inevitable make or break season.

Regardless, Evans will be the Kings' primary ballhandler and depth at point guard is not an issue. Isaiah Thomas, the diminutive baller who played college hoops at Washington, had the best advanced stats of any Kings player last season. The front office also acquired Aaron Brooks, two years removed from winning the Most Improved Player award and coming off a season overseas. He was unhappy in Phoenix before that, but being that he had a say in landing in Sactown and is presumably content, he could still flash the talent that made him attractive in his time with the Houston Rockets.

Jimmer Fredette. (AP/Steve Yeater)
And, of course, there is another pointman living on the bench. Jimmer Freddette is an anomaly. His stellar college performance was not projected to translate to the NBA, but he did put up better numbers than most of his teammates last season. But mostly, the range! His ability to shoot from anywhere on the floor is legendary in the state of Utah, and range like that does not go away. As Kelly Dwyer noted at Ball Don't Lie, The Jimmer is now technically a veteran and has to find his way in The Association soon, lest he wants to find a career elsewhere. The best way to do that may be to choose his shots instead of throwing up everything that comes his way; being a pure shooter on a team that already has enough guys to make plays. That same logic could be in the minds of other teams, too, possibly looking to snag Fredette while his price is low.

The players are young, and seeing how they work together is reason enough to be on NBA League Pass alert when a Kings game is scheduled. Keith Smart, entering his first full year as head coach, should be able to implement a plan after getting to know most of the roster last season. All of this, without mentioning the will-they-won't-they relocation rumors the Maloof family attempted, unsuccessfully, to dispel. If Kings players get the feeling that their play may affect the organization's future, this is when pressure is at an all-time high. It's time to be professional; time to excel.

Sacramento loves the Kings and deserves better than to lose them to a city that would be half as dedicated. Even with the threat of a move hanging above them, this squad will be fun to watch this season. They have players that are capable of lighting up opponents every time they step on the court, but they need to make the transition from NBA cellar dweller to middle-of-the-pack regiment.

Hoops-wise, that's as sunny as NorCal gets this year.

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