SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Late in the Sacramento Kings’ second of three straight losses to open this season, LA Clippers guard Paul George caught Kings forward KZ Okpala, his primary defender, angled the wrong direction on a high screen, while Richaun Holmes, the dropping big, stood flat-footed behind the screener.
This gave George a clear lane for a left-hand drive past both and maybe the easiest two of his 40 points. It put the Clippers up 10 with just under five minutes left. Kings head coach Mike Brown called timeout. But he lit up De’Aaron Fox, not Okpala or Holmes.
“De’Aaron can win games for us not only offensively,” Brown later recalled. “I’m telling you, he’s stronger, more athletic and more fearless than people give him credit. We blew the coverage on the perimeter, but that was De’Aaron’s responsibility to cover it up, and he didn’t do it. I jumped him for it.”
Here is the possession. Fox is on Luke Kennard — one of the league’s best 3-point shooters — in the corner. But Kennard is no longer Fox’s responsibility once George rips past Holmes. It’s on Fox to rotate over and challenge George at the rim, while Keegan Murray, guarding Nicolas Batum on the wing, rotates to Kennard in the corner. Murray does his job to help erase the mistake. Fox doesn’t.
The Kings only lost that Clippers game by two points. They threatened down the stretch because their defensive effort and focus picked up. That included a Fox stop at the rim with under a minute to go.
Kevin Huerter was caught in a scrambling closeout late in the shot clock after the ball was rotated his direction. Norman Powell, his assignment, blew past him on a left-hand drive, creating an almost mirror image of the George sequence a few minutes prior. Fox was on Reggie Jackson in that far right corner. So it was again his responsibility to slide over and contest.
This time he did it, using verticality to force the miss and keep the game within reach. Here’s the play:
This is the defensive possession that Brown brought up unprompted a night later when asked a more general question about Fox.
“Same thing happened (as the George play),” Brown said. “We had a coverage breakdown. De’Aaron was in the same spot, came across and went vertical. He took the hit in the chest. He had 37 points, some pretty good highlights offensively. But, for me, that was the play of the game. It stood out more than anything. That showed he can do it. So, hey, you can do it, you better do it every time now. That shows growth. That shows the ability to close the game defensively down the stretch.”
There’s also a grander reason for why Brown would light up Fox and not Okpala or Holmes — the cause of the initial breakdown — in that first clip. Okpala is a stopgap power forward on a partially guaranteed minimum. Holmes is the backup center for a team committed to Domantas Sabonis, the starter.
Fox is the max player and franchise face under contract control for the next four seasons, making him arguably the most important person in Brown’s multi-year project to pull the Kings from the depths of the league. Months and seasons down the line, there might be entirely different teammates blowing a pick-and-roll coverage up top, but it’ll still be Fox, if he’s on the corner man, responsible for the rotation.
After a week of basketball, the Kings rank 20th in defensive rating. Absent of context, that’s technically good news. They’ve only escaped the bottom 10 once in the last 16 seasons.
But let’s add context. That current rating is 114.5, only a slight fraction ahead of the 114.8 rating from a season ago, when they finished 24th. The sample size is only 12 quarters, but problems from the past persist. Sabonis was lit up in space against the Golden State Warriors on Sunday. The Kings gave up an astonishing 89 first-half points.
“The thing that disappointed me the most in that first half, defensively, is the amount of times we scored and then they scored in transition,” Brown said. “That was really bothersome to me and it happened time after time after time and our pace getting back was the same. We didn’t change it until halftime and I didn’t yell at the guys, I literally went in and said ‘Hey, we’re either going to keep getting embarrassed or we’re going to at least try to fight.’”
Here is an example from the first half of that Warriors’ game. It’s the last three points of that 89-point barrage. Fox hits a jumper that goes through the net at the 1:18 mark of the second quarter. Andrew Wiggins is already making an and-1 layup on the other end at the 1:14 mark. Only lazy transition defense allows an opponent to do something like this.
But even within what has been a winless opening week, there are early hints at what would be a vital long-term development.
Keegan Murray missed the opener because he was recovering from COVID-19. The fourth pick in the 2022 draft has only played in two games. But he’s already flashed the extreme offensive upside, making seven 3s and scoring in a variety of other ways en route to 35 points. here are the highlights.
Brown had been hesitant to start Murray. Next to Fox and Sabonis, it’s clear Brown wanted some extra defensive versatility out there with the starters. That’s why he went with Okpala, a rangy defender who checks wings and guards. But there’s a problem. Okpala guarded Damian Lillard in the opener but also gave Lillard a place to hide on the other end.
Okpala is viewed as a non-threat by opposing coaching staffs. In 38 minutes, the 23-year-old forward has only scored three points, taken five shots and made one. He camps behind the 3-point line but doesn’t scare a defender enough to remain attached. Murray’s shooting will frighten opponents, cracking the court open for Fox and Sabonis.
The transition has already begun. Murray played 33 minutes off the bench in his first game and 38 minutes on Sunday against the Warriors. Okpala only played three minutes. Murray started in his place to open the second half, and Brown didn’t rule out the possibility of Murray entering the starting lineup on Thursday against the Grizzlies.
Part of that reasoning is clearly related to Murray’s better-than-initially-expected individual defense. The Kings put him on George during that final frantic run against the Clippers, and he held up well enough. These aren’t emphatic stops, but they’re stops.
Murray also had two alert transition blocks in that Clippers game, guarded Stephen Curry for a few possessions against the Warriors and is picking up the schemes quicker than an average rookie.
“I’m not sure (what he can be defensively) yet,” Brown said. “I’m learning something new every day. When we first drafted him, I thought he was going to be a power forward, you know? By the end of summer league, I thought he might be a two, three, four. I don’t know what he is now, but he’s a baller. He can ball for a young man. It doesn’t stop with his ability to shoot the ball. I think he can be a very, very good two-way guy who can possibly guard a lot of positions, sooner than later.”
(Top photo: Noah Graham / NBAE via Getty Images)