Late Season Injuries Provide Meaningful Evaluation

After his left knee collided with the driving Mikal Bridges on Sunday, Domantas Sabonis is not traveling with the Kings for their five-game roadtrip, which begins Wednesday against Indiana, his former team. 

The big man was diagnosed with a bone bruise after his Monday MRI revealed no structural damage. He’ll be reevaluated on March 31st while the team is in Houston, the final stop on the trip.

Out of the last seven games for the Kings, only three of them featured the full Fox-Sabonis partnership. That trend looks like it will continue for the next five, maybe more.

It began with Sabonis’ suspension following his ejection against New York, prompting him to miss the next game against the Nuggets. One became two when the team went on the road for one game against the Jazz with Sabonis out again because his wife gave birth to their first child. 

The duo once again played together for the next two as the team showed up for a pair of nice performances. The Kings beat the Bulls in probably the team’s best performance since the deadline with Fox and Sabonis combining for 56 points. And in the following game, Sacramento played well against the Bucks, only losing it in the last few possessions.

In the matchup against the defending champs, Fox injured his right hand in the first half, showing visible discomfort the rest of the game. The Kings guard then missed the remaining two contests of the homestand against Boston and Phoenix. 

With the status still unknown regarding De’Aaron Fox’s non-shooting hand for Wednesday, this week could even present the Kings with the challenge of playing without the entirety of their talented duo.

It’s not like injuries are ever good, especially when it’s regarding your best players, but it’s better that this happens at a moment like this rather than, say, next season.

The Kings have pretty much been out of serious contention for the final play-in spot for a few weeks now, which has prompted the team to close out the year with the primary goal of building chemistry and forming some momentum going into next year, something that’s produced positive signs

While the idea of using the final stretch to set the table for next year’s go was the alternative plan by all outward appearances, it certainly did not have to be improvised. The chances of making the playoffs after the trade deadline would have required the play of nearly perfect basketball, a tough ask for a team that suddenly became half comprised of new guys. That secondary option was always in the franchise’s back pocket if it wasn’t already the realistic expectation behind closed doors.

However, with Sabonis out for at least the next five games, it takes away valuable on-court time for the team to further enhance the group cohesion that is already bearing promising sprouts. 

“I think as a team we’ll have times and we’ll do the right thing and do it well, and there’s times when we get stagnant again and just watch him even when he is doubled, which is not a good thing,” Justin Holiday said postgame Friday after being asked about how the team is learning to react when Sabonis is being double-teamed. “I think we’re still trying to figure that piece out as a unit. Obviously, I know what to do because I’ve played with him, but there’s five of us, so it’s not like I can be in each spot. And other guys want to do well and do the right thing, too. Sometimes we have two guys cutting, sometimes we think the other guy’s gonna cut.”

Without much practice time, the remaining games in the season were supposed to provide a lot of room for that kind of growth, and if the new half of the team’s foundation is missing at least five out of the last nine games, a useful window of time significantly narrows.

At the same time, Sabonis’ integration into this team and the collateral effects from the trade have been, if anything, some of the biggest positives of the last six weeks. From a new offensive style to Fox’s ascendance to the team-wide commitment to competing, the Kings have proven that they can score with the best of them. 

No matter what, the deadline moves were geared mainly for next season. The idea for Sacramento is to do the best they can at approaching that leap. 

Losing some time late in the year isn’t ideal for the team’s best players, but considering the serious shift in this team’s direction and the considerable progress charted so far, it opens up opportunities for enhanced roles and minutes for certain guys to be evaluated on going forward.

Davion Mitchell

With Fox’s hand injury, it’s given Davion Mitchell the opportunity to start and take on a heavier load of minutes. In fact, since the homestand began against Chicago, Mitchell has played increased minutes, playing pretty well overall, and closing games.

In the last five, Mitchell is shooting 46.7% from the field and 44.4% from deep in an average of 31.8 minutes played a game. 

The rookie is not only playing a larger potion of meaningful minutes, he’s often guarding the best perimeter player on the other end and going out of his way for hustle plays in his increased opportunity. All of this on top of being an extremely disciplined and dedicated player.

“He’s always watching film, always asking questions,” his teammate Damian Jones said of him.

His first start against the Celtics was not an exceptionally great game for Mitchell. He scored just 12 points on 5-14 shooting, including only 1-4 from three and 1-2 from the charity stripe, modest attempt numbers from the starting point guard.

Mitchell really stepped it up in the next game against the Suns, scoring a career-high 28 points in the overtime loss on 9-22 shooting, including 4-7 from deep and 6-6 from the free throw line, and compiling 9 assists.

Coach Alvin Gentry commented on the challenge for Mitchell having to step up at this point in the season:

“It’s hard for him in this situation because we’re playing him 46 minutes, and we’re asking him to go at Booker, and then we ask him to guard Shamet, then we tell him to come down and put us in our offense and that’s really hard, especially for a guy that’s now played over seventy games. That’s two college seasons.” 

Rookie years are no easy task, especially for guys not guaranteed a starting role on the team. Mitchell has had his role shift this year with injuries and ultimately the trade, his minutes have not always been consistent, and as a result he has not been very consistent either. Yet he always comes out and plays hard.

To have this chance to play a larger role among the group—no matter if it’s two or more games in the starting lineup or permanent consideration to close games—is invaluable for a guy establishing himself in the league and on his team, and Mitchell has clearly been taking steps in the right direction. 

The final nine games can really be a substantial period of growth for him regardless if Fox misses more time or not.

Chimezie Metu

Another guy who has had increased minutes over the last few weeks has been Chimezie Metu.

Unlike Mitchell, Metu is not considered a lock in the longterm plans of the team, but he’s interesting because he seems to do enough in his opportunities to keep getting more, and that is key for a guy who is not necessarily guaranteed a spot on any given NBA roster.

Often times the first thing that Metu provides is a spark of energy. Whether it’s sneaking behind the defense for the lob or taking a quick step to intercept a pass, Metu has been quick to make an impact with his athleticism on both ends of the floor.

More than just his ability to affect the game’s energy, Metu seems to be settling in down the stretch with this team, shooting at higher percentages in the last month or so and showing up with ten or more points in three out of the last five games. 

In his nine games in the month of March, Metu is shooting 50% from the field and 44.4% from deep. If he can continue to be a scoring or, moreover, a shooting threat in addition to him being athletic, there could be an opportunity for him to step up and carve out a role in next year’s rotation.

Even as Metu has another year on his deal, he’ll really have to continue to work and improve in order to crack the rotation for good. But an athletic four who can shoot from deep would certainly be useful to the Kings, and if there are more minutes to play in the remaining nine games, Chimezie Metu has the opportunity to try and fill a void.

Damian Jones

Not only is it that Sabonis is out for a few games and an eye is being kept on Fox’s hand, Richaun Holmes is out for the remainder of the season for personal reasons.

Holmes was demoted by default when Sabonis came in last month, but even as he missed time here and there for personal reasons, he was always in the rotation when playing.

Given his contract and track record for success when off-court issues aren’t present, he’s earned that, and even as his energy seemed somewhat depleted, it was picking up in the last couple games he played before his season was ultimately shelved.

One of the interesting things about Holmes coming back and getting the minutes as the primary backup center was that it left no minutes for Damian Jones despite Jones’ good play.

All year, Damian Jones has had his minutes fluctuate with injuries to various pieces at different times. In spite of inconsistent playtime, Jones has managed to remain consistent whenever his time on the court came.

Among the new group here in the month of March, when Jones is called into games, he’s been very active on both ends of the floor, filling in right away. 

Defensively, Jones is contesting shots and using his hands to make plays. He had four steals at home against the Nuggets last week, averaging over one a game this month.

Outside of Sunday’s game against Phoenix, Jones has not really showcased the full extent of his offensive game. Jones slid into the primary center slot after Sabonis left the game, and he played exceptionally well in 22 minutes, filling up the stat sheet with 13 points, 7 rebounds, an assist, 2 steals, and a block. But more than that, he also sunk a few jump shots in his enhanced role, a 18-footer, a 24-foot three, and a fadeaway jumper, highlighting some less utilized capabilities.

Much like Metu, Damian Jones would have to work extremely hard to secure himself a spot in a future rotation, which will be difficult no matter if Holmes sticks around—as he and McNair claim they want—or another backup is brought in at a more appropriate price. But he’s proven all year, particularly down the stretch lately, that he can be a worthy asset.

Jones will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason, so it will be interesting to see what the Kings plan to do with him, but he’s at least giving them something to think about.

Wrapping it up

In the effort to lay the groundwork for next season, some injuries here with nine games to go come with their own drops of optimism. In this situation, other pieces on this Kings teams can be given more minutes and meaningful evaluation regarding their roles going forward.

The rookie Mitchell is clearly establishing himself as a professional basketball player and setting a tone for what he may be able to do for a full season with the way he closes out this one.

Meanwhile, other pieces have a chance to prove themselves and give the front office something to think about. Even if guys like Metu and Jones can’t find a place on this team in the near future, they are nevertheless providing insight into how different skillsets and play styles fit in with the core group of guys who will be in the rotation next season.

At this point in the year, injuries to key players just offer a look at this roster from a different light.

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