When Trey Lyles showed up to camp in September, he was arguably in the best shape he’s been in during his career. By all accounts, the forward dropped about 20 lbs. in the offseason.
Of course, as the guy enters his eighth season, keeping one’s body in the best possible condition is key, and what’s more, Lyles will be an unrestricted free agent, which puts an emphasis on his performance this year.
However, in addition to those facts of the business, Lyles must have also understood who he was playing for.
After six years as an assistant in Golden State where he was a part of three championship runs, there was little doubt in anyone’s mind that Mike Brown would instill a philosophy that favors pace, movement, and defensive commitment. All three factors require a player to be ready at all times, meaning not only that they be mentally prepared, but that they also be physically capable to play the right way at any time.
De’Aaron Fox was quick to point out that he felt the whole training camp roster was “buying in” from the start. And even through some tough early season losses, coach Brown has stuck with his point of saying his team wants to “do the right thing on both sides of the ball.”
Therefore the competition was high, and everything had to be earned.
Lyles knew that. He’d shown he knew that last season.
He didn’t play much in his first three games in a Kings uniform. In his fourth he was awarded 16 minutes off the bench, and then he was put in the starting lineup for the following game. In his first start under interim coach Alvin Gentry, Lyles scored 24 points on 10 of 14 from the field.
He was a great presence on the glass, a smart enough defender, a sound veteran who made the right decision, and was a far better threat from deep than Moe Harkless had been.
After a nice stint in Sacramento to close the year, it was obvious Lyles could be a valuable role player, even with the added competition.
And it may have surprised some fans that Lyles was getting equal opportunities as KZ Okpala, who despite his defensive ceiling has not established himself in the NBA. However, Lyles was never worried as seen in his own description of his honest approach back on media day.
“I’m gonna to start from the ground up — working hard, playing hard, doing the little things — and then that’s gonna open up the door for me to do other things as well,” Lyles explained with his collected demeanor. “I’m gonna continue to try and be a leader for the young guys. I’m more of a quiet guy, but I show with my effort and stuff like that. So just continue to do that and try to fill in the places that coach and my teammates need me to fill in.”
Off of that, Lyles explained that “as a competitor,” he doesn’t want anything “handed” to him and wants to go out and “earn it.” He underlined the fact that the team wide competition is good for everybody.
It was a little sporadic minutes wise for Lyles at the start of the year. After opening night, Lyles did not play against the Clippers, he played just 4 minutes at Golden State, and then he got another DNP against the Grizzlies.
As Mike Brown attempted to settle on a rotation with high hopes in his Nigerian National Team guys, Okpala, Chimezie Metu, and even Chima Moneke were getting minutes over Lyles in that Memphis game.
The question was how long Brown’s hope would last.
Sure, Lyles was not exceptional in his limited time—on opening night, he went 2 of 8 from the field, shooting 7 three-pointers while not being much of a factor elsewhere—but his experience and mentality made it clear that it was a no brainer that he should be getting minutes over the other three.
In the loss to Memphis, it was simply absurd that Mike Brown went with Metu and Moneke over Lyles. Moneke has upside and could be a fruitful project, but he’s a 26 year-old rookie, which isn’t bad, but it is not a sign of an instant impact type of player. And Metu, despite his nice minutes against Golden State, is not a consistent player, nor is he super self-aware.
On the day before the game against Miami, even coach Brown himself seemed to come to terms with the fact a crowded rotation was not helping his team.
“I have to continue to try and do a better job of helping the guys out, helping put them in right positions to be effective on the floor, whether it be offensively or defensively,” the head coach told reporters. “Eventually I have to get to a point where I’m settled with a rotation and giving that an opportunity.”
Like his first few games with Sacramento, it was a matter of time until Lyles slipped through to fill in some of the cracks negatively affecting the team. And so it was only a matter of time for Brown to settle on him as a part of the rotation.
With his performance against the Heat, Lyles was recognized by his coach. And with another great performance against the Hornets, he might be securing himself as one of the more valuable bigger-bodied players on this team, especially with the slow start Richaun Holmes is having (and Alex Len didn’t look too prepared in limited minutes against Charlotte). It should be noted he played the small 5 on Monday after Domas fouled out.
The effect Lyles is having on both ends of the floor has been a shot in the arm here at this early juncture.
Offensively, he’s beginning to show that he’s gaining a better feel for the movement on that end. And he’s hit 3 of 7 three-pointers in these last two contests.
But really, it’s the defensive side where Lyles makes the biggest difference.
The reason for that appears to come as a result of being a trimmed down version of himself.
The Kings are currently giving up more than 52 points in the paint, which is horrible. While Domantas Sabobis plays with solid positioning, he’s not a rim protector, and opponents are exploiting the fact he’s a foul whistle trap. Plus, there is virtually no help behind him on the bench, at least so far.
In the previous couple of games, Lyles has posted 3 terrific blocks. Against Miami, he showed excellent resilience after Kyle Lowry stole an inbounds pass off of a silly Kings mistake. Jimmy Butler made a heads up cut to the basket in what looked like was going to be a freebie, but right behind him was Lyles who roared to that end like his tail was on fire.
He had a similar block against the Hornets, but instead of it being in the aftermath of a turnover, it was in the half court on a beautiful rotation into the paint. Just being able to contest that shot—at a time when Sacramento goes through spurts where failures to rotate open up canyon-sized lanes to the rim—is good, but getting up there to get the block was all the better.
And later in that Hornets game, Lyles bodied up and stayed in front of his man, using great positioning, leading with his chest, and keeping his hands up. He made the look tough for the opponent and again finished it off with a block at a clutch moment with the lead at just 3.
This isn’t to say he’s a rim protector; Lyles is not going to fix that problem for the Kings. But he is an all-around force of productive steadiness.
That isn’t to overstate his value; it’s reasonable to assume he won’t impact every game the same way since matchups tend to vary. However, he is one of the better players on the bigger side of the spectrum.
And because that defensive punch he’s providing seems like a vast improvement from what he was offering last season, it seems the weight loss is doing wonders. After all, in 4 games played, Lyles has a 90.9 individual defensive rating.
Yeah, it’s a minuscule sample size, but there’s a reason fans and observers keep hearing about how Mike Brown is pointing out a lot of the subtle goods Lyles provides when looking at tape on the defensive end.
With the Kings slated to play the Heat again tonight, look for Lyles and his impact on both ends of the floor.