The 1990s Bulls. The early 2000s Spurs. The 2004 Pistons. The 2022 Kings.
Yes, you heard that right. The next NBA franchise that will make you marvel at their defense on their way to the NBA crown isn’t the Sixers with their collection of No. 1 overall selections, nor the Lakers and all their lottery picks.
It’s that one messy franchise in the heart of California that never seemed to get anything right this past decade (outside of picking DeMarcus Cousins, and even that’s a maybe) — the Sacramento Kings.
Out of the last 38 NBA champions, only two had defensive efficiency ratings outside the top 10. The first thing that comes to mind when the Golden State Warriors are mentioned is their high flying offense — and understandably so — but what is often overlooked is their defense, which has finished in the top five three years in a row. The old adage “defense wins championships” will never go away, and for good reason.
That is exactly the reason why the Kings will be the most feared squad in the league in five years. This is the most defensive-minded group of prospects in recent memory.
Let’s start from the inside. Patrolling the paint will be two towering Kentucky wildcats: Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissière.
Cauley-Stein was Kentucky coach John Calipari’s defensive anchor in Lexington, and he’s already shown flashes of that in his two years in the pros. His 7’1” frame, coupled with freakish athleticism, lets him combine rim protection with the ability to switch onto guards, which is particularly important in the pick-and-roll-heavy NBA. The 6’11” Labissière isn’t quite as freakish, but he owns what is perhaps the most important factor on defense — effort. The athletic forward is a grinder, relentless on the boards and has similarly impressive shot-blocking abilities.
Future starting forward Justin Jackson is a high-IQ player at the wing with great communication on the defensive side of the ball. He has showed a knack for improvement, as he learned to maximize his defensive impact during North Carolina’s championship run at this year’s March Madness. At the shooting guard position is Buddy Hield, who can more than hold up his own with his quick hands and length — which will be trouble for opponents.
All of that hasn’t even taken into account the Kings’ No. 5 overall pick this year, De’Aaron Fox. He possesses game-changing defense at the point guard position in a league dominated by talented multi-purpose floor generals. Watch Kentucky’s Sweet 16 victory over Lonzo Ball’s UCLA, and it’s easy to see why his ability to stop opposing point guards is so heralded. He is great when isolated, can get around screens with ease and is even capable of highlight-reel blocks.
Fox is also a driving force behind what this offense could look like. He’s the second hyper-explosive 6’4 guard out of Kentucky in this last decade after “2017 MVP lock” John Wall (Giannis Antetokounmpo would beg to differ). Former Sacramento legend Chris Webber even drew comparisons to the defending MVP Russell Westbrook when speaking of Fox’s ability to penetrate. His jumper may be iffy right now, but it is mechanically sound, and he is not afraid to pull the trigger — giving him tremendous upside on the offensive end.
His backcourt partner, Hield, was possibly the best shooter to come out of a draft since Steph Curry. He has NBA range and then some, and when he can’t pull up, he has the handles and frame to get to the rim and finish strong. To top it off, Hield seems to have the best work ethic out of this group, evident by his drastic improvement from junior to senior year at Oklahoma. A shooting guard with an unending drive to improve wearing number 24 — surely that reminds you of someone.
Cauley-Stein’s hops and accelerator can get him easy finishes in transition and tons of alley-oops in the pick-and-roll, a la DeAndre Jordan or even (young) Dwight Howard. Labissière already has an impressive arsenal of offensive moves that include a smooth midrange shot and half-hook shot in the paint. Jackson’s feel for the game and unselfishness will provide tremendous flow to this offense.
Complementing the starters are similarly competitive college stars Harry Giles and Frank Mason III. Although undersized at 6’0, the reigning Naismith College Player of the Year, Mason, has speed and explosiveness to go with a fearless and aggressive style of play that is sure to energize the team. Giles was blessed with similar height and athleticism as Amar’e Stoudemire, while his tenacity and versatility has resembled that of Kevin Garnett. He’s also coming off two torn ACLs in high school, just 300 minutes of college playing time and no NBA minutes. Here’s to the basketball gods giving Sacramento some good luck for once.
Add a two-way superstar (think the Paul George or Jimmy Butler type) and supplement the bench with hard-playing veterans, and you have a truly unstoppable force with a trademark impenetrable wall.
For head coach Dave Joerger, this composition of tenacious young talent is nothing new, having previously orchestrated the grit-‘n’-grind Memphis teams of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Unlike those Grizzlies teams, often hindered by their slow, sluggish offense, this Sacramento squad can space the floor with Jackson, Hield and Labissière in a much more free-flowing attack.
Admittedly, projections aren’t always met, and ceilings are more often than not unrealized. But this core of young players has a drive, a competitiveness and an attitude that won’t go away. Their talents on defense will get them to the NBA Finals. If these players can answer those question marks on offense, then you’re looking at the next NBA dynasty.
Earlier this summer, Bleacher Report projected this Kings team to be 29-53 in five years time. But clearly, all signs point to this Kings team lined up for the crown very soon. They will not just win the NBA title. They will reign over the NBA — icing on the cake if they trump the Lakers in the process — the way the 2002 team never did. They will leave Lonzo Ball and the rest of the league as a mere footnote in their chapter of NBA history.
Leo Xie covers men’s swim. Contact him at [email protected].