Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
It's been a little less than a month since the Sacramento Kings shocked the world on All-Star night, finally giving up on the DeMarcus Cousins era by trading him to the New Orleans Pelicans. Much was made of the paltry return the Kings received, with rookie Buddy Hield—whom Kings owner Vivek Ranadive believes has "Steph Curry potential"—being the biggest piece the Kings received in the deal. Hield has improved his play since coming to Sacramento, and the idea of him becoming a quality NBA starter seems far less absurd than it did a few weeks ago. Still, if Kings fans are really looking for something to be happy about as they move on from their former franchise center, it would be the encouraging play of the other two former Kentucky big men on the roster, Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere.
With Boogie as the team's centerpiece, it was fair to wonder why the Kings insisted on continuing to draft centers. They'd rarely see the court, and seemed to only clog up the roster. But with Boogie gone, coach Dave Joerger had no choice but to give his young bigs a shot, and the results have been quite impressive. In Monday's win over the Magic, Labissiere and Cauley-Stein both started, and were significant contributors in the victory. Cauley-Stein played 36 minutes, putting up 18 points and seven rebounds, while Labissiere added 11 points and seven rebounds of his own. Both young stars likely got the nod because Kosta Koufos was unavailable that evening, but their strong performances could convince Joerger to start them more frequently in the future.
For Labissiere, the journey to being an NBA rotation player has been quite an arduous one. After being the No. 2 recruit of the 2016 class, trailing only Ben Simmons, a disappointing season at Kentucky dropped him all the way to Sacramento and the 28th pick on draft night. His strong play in the Summer League bolstered speculation that the Kings got a steal in the draft, but he languished in the D-League for much of the season anyway. And when he was in Sacramento, it was usually to pick up a DNP-CD. Since Cousins' departure, however, Labissiere has made the most of the time he's gotten.
In an admittedly small sample size, he's shot .557 from the field. More importantly, he's developed a nice mid-range game, shooting .588 on shots between ten and 16 feet, and an eye-popping (if likely unsustainable) .692 on shots between 16 and 22 feet. We have yet to see him do much from beyond the arc, but he's young, and the fact that he can already drain long twos suggests that we might see him start hitting from downtown soon. Labissiere was an extremely raw prospect going into the NBA, but his strong work over the past month suggests he's also a rather quick learner.
As for Cauley-Stein, after starting 39 games as a rookie, he became something of an afterthought within the Kings rotation, struggling to get minutes behind Cousins and Koufos. But WCS is also making the most of Boogie's departure, scoring in double figures seven times over the last ten games. In a valiant OT loss to the Wizards, he put up 20 points and 13 rebounds, and was a big reason the Kings nearly pulled off the upset. Just as he was at Kentucky, WCS is a dominant player near the basket, and while his offense is still limited, the fact that he's even been willing to attempt jump shots is an encouraging development.
The Sacramento Kings fan base is one of the most long-suffering in sports, and trading in a franchise centerpiece for such a disappointing return was yet another punch in the gut. Still, things are not completely devoid of hope in Sacramento. Picking up Labissiere late in the first round when his value was at an all-time low was a smart move that could pay off in a huge way, while Cauley-Stein is beginning to justify the high draft pick the Kings used on him. No one is totally sure what the post-Boogie Kings will look like, but with their two young bigs making the most of their newfound playing time, one can't help but wonder if the rebuilding effort already has two key pieces.