The NBA draft is a night for hope, change, and new beginnings. The promise of a future better than, or at least different than, the present enlivens everything. Except, in recent years, for the Sacramento Kings.
For the Kings, an organization that's made so many embarrassing decisions over the past decade that former employees would rather leave blank spaces on their resume than admit to working there, the draft has mostly been used as an opportunity to dig themselves deeper and deeper towards new depths of discouragement. To look back over their past drafts is to see a map of their organizational dysfunction: basic player evaluation tasks botched, team-building plans hastily conceived and hastily abandoned, decisions that seem to reflect no particular goal at all.
But Sacramento entered Thursday night with a clean slate and an electrifying opportunity. It was their first draft since DeMarcus Cousins was traded to New Orleans, which marked the official start of a brand new era. That trade was not terribly well-received, but at the end of the draft, there were several reasons to think the Kings may have finally reversed course from being considered the NBA's laughingstocks.
Here's a quick recap. With the fifth pick, Sacramento drafted De'Aaron Fox, a 19-year-old lightning bolt from Kentucky who embarrassed second overall pick Lonzo Ball in the NCAA Tournament. Fox is talented enough to replace Cousins as a legitimate franchise player in time, with the important difference being his personality doesn't make every day feel like it's raining.
Given Sacramento's youth—which is extreme: barring a trade, the Kings may have ten players on rookie-scale contracts at training camp next season—Fox will have an opportunity to establish a new team identity that prioritizes defense, communication, and, generally speaking, a revolutionary and novel willingness to treat co-workers like human beings.
"I know it's going to be tough to change a team," Fox told reporters shortly after he was drafted. "But for me I want to come in and be able to affect the game right away. A lot of people say I could be a franchise changer, and that's what I really want to be…Sometimes when a team is not doing too well, they probably didn't have the leadership that they wanted. Especially playing the point guard position, usually that's the leader on the team, and I know I'm going to come in, the youngest guy on the team, but just try to earn everybody's respect."
Fox's jump shot is worrisome, if not quite a Rajon Rondo/Elfrid Payton/Ricky Rubio construction site. It also becomes slightly less of a concern given that Fox's backcourt partner will be Buddy Hield, who made 42.8 percent of his threes after being traded to the Kings last season. Those two complement each other beautifully, and if things work out right they absolutely have the potential to become one of the Western Conference's better guard tandems a few years from now.
If Fox's physical gifts, most notably his speed, translate like John Wall's have, he can be one of the league's 10 best point guards. Defense matters that much. This is a huge development for an organization that desperately needs stability at the sport's most important position.
Above-average point guard play makes life easier for everyone else, from Hield to emerging bigs Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere to head coach Dave Joerger. The results won't come right away, but Fox is a foundation-laying centerpiece, a perfect fit and possible star. Sacramento would deserve an A grade for the night by taking him alone, but a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers made things even better.
Instead of selecting one prospect with the 10th pick—Fox's UK teammate Malik Monk was on the board, but didn't make sense given Hield's presence—Sacramento traded the pick to Portland for the 15th and 20th overall selections.
For a team that's finally accepted the need to start from the ground up, this made a ton of sense. The Kings took advantage by selecting Justin Jackson and Harry Giles. The former is 6'8" with a 6'11" wingspan, an ideal swingman in today's NBA who can defend multiple positions and (hopefully) knock down the open threes afforded by Fox's penetration. Best-case scenario: He's a savvier Otto Porter.
Meanwhile, the 19-year-old Giles, who tore both ACL's in the past four years, might be the steal of the entire draft. Several observers of this freshman class still believe a healthy Giles can be an elite NBA talent. It's been some time since anyone saw that version of Giles, but the good news on that front is Sacramento's medical staff is as dependable as they come. Giles has enough talent and upside to exceed the expected value of a typical 20th overall pick, and there's the glimmer of a possibility that he could be a star. In other words: another sensible decision.
Then, with the 34th overall pick, the Kings drafted the best player in college basketball last season. That would be Frank Mason III, a 5'11" bag of cement who developed into an all-around star over four years at Kansas. He lacks size and the other measurables that get players into the first round, but if Mason makes the team and can back up and complement Fox for the next six or seven years, the Kings will have pulled off a near-perfect draft.
One night can change an organization's course, but a lot more work must be done before the Kings can actually win games that matter. Enough damage has been done over the past few years to keep Sacramento out of the postseason for at least another two seasons. The Kings may well be the worst team in the NBA next year, and they probably won't win more than 25 games in the season after that. But that's okay! A logical plan, built around promising talent, shrewd dealmaking, and long-term cap flexibility is a start. In recent years, the Kings weren't much better, they didn't even have that.
If they sign all their picks, renounce all their free agents, bring over Bogdan Bogdanovic, and don't waive Arron Afflalo, who only has $1.5 million guaranteed on his $12.5 million salary, the Kings will have about $38.4 million in cap space to spend this summer. Sacramento doesn't own their 2019 first-round pick—either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers will get that selection—so they shouldn't waste that money on veterans who don't fit their timeline. Instead, the Kings would be wise to hoard assets and turn themselves into a dumping ground for opposing teams looking to shed salary. For example: What can they extract from the Los Angeles Lakers in exchange for assuming Luol Deng's massive deal? It's a question they've probably already started to answer. The Kings can pick up a future first-round pick or two and add a highly-respected locker room presence who isn't quite good enough to increase their win total. (Sacramento's tank job in 2018 will be epic.)
There are other teams in position to take on bad salary for the price of a juicy asset—like the Indiana Pacers, Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers, and Chicago Bulls—but Sacramento should be more able/willing than most, and should be the first phone call for desperate teams trying to duck under the luxury tax or clear enough space to sign a max free agent.
It shouldn't totally surprise anyone if the Kings relapse into their old ways and ruin their flexibility with a shopping spree—their owner is still Vivek Ranadive—but the moves they've made over the past few months signal a promising shift in strategy. They've finally realized there are no short cuts in the NBA, and that patience is a virtue. All the Kings need now is a little bit of luck (particularly with Giles' legs), another high pick in next year's draft, and a front office that isn't tempted to mortgage the future for short-term gains.
Given the team's past, that is a lot to ask. Given their showing on draft night, though, it seems significantly less fanciful. But if things fall their way, not only will the Kings no longer be viewed as the most embarrassing franchise in the NBA, they'll be a rising threat.