First Half Grades: The Starters

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 21: Domantas Sabonis #10, DeAaron Fox #5, and Keegan Murray #13 of the Sacramento Kings walk to the bench during a timeout during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers on December 21, 2022 at Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

A reason the Kings are 32-25 and ranked third in the Western Conference at the all-star break is, to a large degree, due to Sacramento’s starting five.

“Our starting lineup is one of the best, if not the best in the NBA,” general manager Monte McNair said at his post-trade deadline presser a few weeks ago.

Of all lineups that have played 260 or more minutes together, the lineup of De’Aaron Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray, and Domantas Sabonis is ranked eighth overall in net rating (+4.0) among the entire NBA.

A good explanation for that overall standing is the fact that, under the same criteria, that same group has the eighth best offensive rating in the league.

What’s not to like about the two-man foundation of all-stars Fox and Sabonis, supported by the veteran moxie of Barnes, and combined with the ascending arcs of Huerter and a rookie Murray?

Right now, it is one of the best around, but what makes it particularly special is the fact it should be even better a year from now.

Without getting too far ahead, here are the grades for the five starters through the “first half”—or first 57 games—of the season. Not every player is graded on the same criteria, but based on a combination of role, expectations, and performance.

De’Aaron Fox: A+

2022-23 stats: 24.8 PPG (.507/.325/.797) 4.3 RPG 6.2 APG

2021-22 stats: 23.2 PPG (.473/.297/.750) 3.9 RPG 5.6 APG

Off the bat, let it be known that Fox is the only one to gain an A+ out of everyone on the roster. Fox has brought everything expected and then some: leading a winning team, not getting off to a slow start, being easily the most clutch scorer in the league, bringing a consistent intensity to the defensive end, and topping it off with all-star honors.

His defense deserves a ton of credit. Even as his defensive rating is a below-average 115.7 and the second worst among rotational players, he’s had a great defensive season. Mike Brown has highlighted his excellence as the “head of the snake” on both ends of the floor, and as recently as the first of two Mavericks games at home—the one in which the Kings lost it by surrendering 45 points in the first period—the only guy that defended well from start to finish, and as a whole played well, was De’Aaron Fox.

Then of course, making this illustration simpler, in the following game against Dallas—and both Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic—Fox erupted for an explosive 26 points in both the fourth quarter and the overtime period as his team came out with the victory.

Fox has positioned himself as one of the best point guards in the NBA, so of course he deserves all the credit.

There was some legitimate hesitancy to give him an A+ on account of the stretch of time where he was suffering from a foot bruise. As was demonstrated by taking a few games off on a six-game road trip in December, a bit of rest was all he needed and had he taken it earlier, the team very well could have benefitted from the all-star guard’s typical presence from the end of November and into the following month.

Sacramento went 3-4 in the final 7 games before Fox’s first game off in Cleveland; he averaged 16.1 points in those 7 contests. 

That point holds merit, but thinking about the big picture, when you’re the homegrown cornerstone of an organization that has frankly done nothing but lose for the previous decade and a half, doing your part to push the culture needle in the right direction deserves a lot of credit.

Will he do that again? Unless it’s the playoffs or a stretch critical to conference standings, it’s doubtful.

However, that must have sent a hell of a message with arguably the team’s biggest leader demonstrating the “all-in” mentality Mike Brown has tried to get his guys to buy into.

Plus, his impact carries far more depth than scoring numbers can indicate.

In all, he is one of the most unguardable killers in the league. He’s just an absolute marvel to watch, and if his season so far in clutch situations is any indication, then there should be a lot of excitement to come as the late-season push and playoff spotlight approach.

Kevin Huerter: B+

2022-23 stats: 14.9 PPG (.478/.392/.699) 3.4 RPG 2.9 APG

2021-22 stats: 12.1 PPG (.454/.389/.808) 3.4 RPG 2.7 APG

Kevin Huerter has been awesome this season. He’s proven to be far more than the 50.0% clip from deep he posted in the first 16 games. 

Since then he’s shot 34.0% from three, and in his last 16 games before the break, he shot 31.3%.

His usage and movement are both up considerably from his time in Atlanta, and as some have noted, that certainly seems to point to tired legs as a good explanation for his shooting dip. Yet his scoring numbers (14.9, 15.3, and 14.3 respectively) from November to January remained fairly steady in spite of the 18.3 points per game he posted in October’s small sample size. 

Of all Kings lineups that have played at minimum 25 minutes together, Huerter appears in four of the top five offensively ranked groupings. 

His two-man game with Sabonis stands out above practically all others on the team in terms of efficiency, more so than Fox or Malik Monk’s connection to the big man. As a whole, he leads the league in dribble hand off makes and attempts, and Huerter’s frequency attempting shots inside is up and with a higher rate of conversion.

Defensively, his off-ball help and positioning produces plenty of interceptions and deflections. Overall, his defensive activity is high as he averages 2.3 deflections per game and his abilities on the weak side are often applauded by his head coach for good reason.

His on-ball defense, on the other hand, is not great. Both his lack of lateral athleticism and length limit his abilities, but he has nevertheless shown some really nice moments when forced into one-on-one situations, often making good use of his hands. But reliance on hands is a big reason that he commits 2.4 fouls per game (3.0 per 36 minutes).

Similar to his outside shooting, his on-ball defense can vary in terms of what to expect.

In a lot of ways, Huerter is a very consistent player, but in other ways he is not. Verging on giving him an A-, there were a few reasons that kept him below that threshold.

For one, he’s easily the weakest defender among the starters. Sometimes Barnes looks a bit stiff and sometimes Murray looks like a rookie, but their physical profiles and length make a huge difference.

Second, even if there’s little doubt it can happen, Huerter clearly has to be able to tie it all together. The potential gap between his conditioning and his usage needs to be zapped.

Third—and maybe this isn’t too big a deal to some—but there have been too many moments where spectators are left shaking their head when Huerter goes to the free throw line. How many times has he missed technical free throws? He’d probably be the first to tell you that shooting below 70.0% from the charity stripe is entirely unacceptable.

Really, the B+ is a challenge if anything—everyone knows he’s reading this right this very moment—as a strong and balanced close to the season would make a huge difference for this team. 

Harrison Barnes: A-

2022-23 stats: 14.9 PPG (.471/.374/.832) 4.6 RPG 1.6 APG

2021-22 stats: 16.4 PPG (.469/.394/.826) 5.6 RPG 2.4 APG

In a nutshell, Harrison Barnes makes impacts wherever he’s needed, and best of all, he’s proven he is indeed this team’s third most important player.

He’s definitely not the flashiest, and seems to get the most doubt of all five starters, but he’s one of the most efficient presences an NBA team can ask for. Thinking about it another way, he’s right up there with Fox and Sabonis in terms of the versatility of impact. He doesn’t have to be on an offensive heater to close games or stay on the floor.

It would be wrong to not point out that Barnes’ A- easily could have been a B+. For a lot of people, they’d probably grade him far lower, and most everyone would circle his early slump as the primary rationale. There appeared to be some adjustment period for the vet within the new system, but it was really centered on his outside shooting.

In his first 38 games, he shot 31.6% from beyond the arc, but since then he’s shooting 46.9% in the previous 19 (he shot a whopping 49.5% in January’s 15 contests).

Moreover, glancing at his numbers from so far this season as well as last year, some may note that he’s down in points, three-point percentage (mainly due to that slow start), rebounds, and assists. His impact estimate is down (8.9 when it was 10.5 a year ago) as well as his efficiency rating (13.9 when it was 15.7 last year).

It’s easy to look at that and say it’s a down year because in some ways it is.

But his usage is also down (to 16.9% from 18.4%) with a much more talented roster around him, which is probably unlike any other since his days in Golden State. 

With that, both his true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage are up slightly. Plus his individual net rating is up as both his offensive and defensive ratings are in a better position.

On that last note, it has a lot to do with being on a winning team. But in the same light, why condemn slightly lower production?

This is a rather verbose way of trying to demonstrate that individual stats don’t matter as much when pertaining to Barnes. From his Dallas days to his first three and a half seasons in Sac, he’s shown he’s capable of taking on a significant load and producing, but this season is showing that when is not forced into being a primary option, he can provide impacts—both tangible and intangible—that facilitate winning basketball.

Again, his presence in closing games, regardless of whether he is scoring or not, is undeniable. He is always out there, which speaks to the experience and championship pedigree he radiates.

And it truly means something that Barnes is the only player on the Kings to play all 57 games. Being the team’s iron man is a trophy within itself, and that too can be partially attributed to a slightly lighter load.

Above all else, though, Barnes put himself over the top with the fact that, outside of the two all-stars, he can alter the team’s focus for the better. Whenever moments of stagnancy appear, Barnes is often able to stop the bleeding or right the ship by taking on the initiative of getting to the free throw line.

In terms of off-court impact, he is a model for what a lot of his younger teammates should strive to be. With the big picture plan for legitimate contention within the next few years, Harrison Barnes is doing valuable work.

Keegan Murray: A-

2022-23 stats: 11.9 PPG (.442/.415/.794) 4.6 RPG 1.1 APG

2021-22 stats: n/a — rookie

Selected fourth overall this last June out of Iowa, it was easy to see how Keegan Murray could succeed in his rookie season. Starting in all but two of his appearances, Murray has been a significant contributor to the third ranked team in the conference.

To start, look at that three-point percentage. Murray is the best three-point shooter on this team; he’s the closest thing to automatic when the ball hits his hands behind the perimeter. At just 55 games under his belt, he’s already hit the twenty-first most three’s by a rookier and is well on pace to break that record that was set by Donovan Mitchell (187 made) in 2017-2018.

Had there been no November shooting dip (27.0% from deep)—which was largely caused by an unfortunate off-floor matter regarding his grandmother—who knows what the kid would be shooting. 

Combine that outside shooting with the strides he’s made in defense, in rebounding (3.8 rebounds from October through December, and 5.8 per game since the start of January), and in confidence, then he’s on a great track.

And all of that is backed up by his responsiveness, whether it’s his head coach challenging him, his teammates, or his father.

However, he is a rookie that still needs to tie it together in terms of consistency.

If that three-ball isn’t falling, it’s not odd to see the rook disappear in a sense. And in regards to the rebounding and defense, it can be hit or miss.

But he is a mature rookie at that. He sticks to his role, capitalizes on his opportunities, and, again, has been a valuable component to the starting five. 

Perhaps not everyone agrees, but his expectations were to be a starter that could score something just above 10.0 points per game, but to be shooting at such tremendous clips is not only surprising and bordering on being historic, it’s been a tremendous shot in the arm for the team.

He really should have been at the three-point contest alongside his teammate.

In one sense, it feels wrong giving the rookie a higher grade than Huerter, but relative to the role and the expectations as a first-year player, Keegan Murray has been exceptional. 

Paolo Banchero, Bennedict Mathurin, and others are probably far above him in Rookie of the Year voting at the end of the day, but Murray easily stands out as one of the most impressive first-year players.

Murray’s still a long way from reaching his max potential on defense, but he is positioning himself to be a star-level two-way player in a couple of years, and that’s why he deserves an A- even if he’s the least impactful (in terms of scoring and work load) of the starting five.

Domantas Sabonis: A

2022-23 stats: 18.8 PPG (.611/.348/.764) 12.3 RPG 6.9 APG

2021-22 stats: 18.9 PPG (.573/.312/.741) 12.1 RPG 5.2 APG

The acquisition of Domantas Sabonis over a year ago was a seismic shift for this organization, serving as a bridge of sorts over a directional chasm. 

This season, he leads the league in rebounding (12.3 per game), as well as in double-double’s (45), and ranks third in triple-doubles (6), seeming to flirt with one every game as one might guess based on his statistics.

Considering his versatile impact and lack of reassuring depth behind him at his position, he is the most irreplaceable player on the Kings. Fox may tip the balance in the end as a lethal primary ball handler, but the whole bridge would collapse without Sabonis (which is not to say this team would be much better without Fox instead).

He was already an elite big man in the league, but he’s positioned himself to be in the MVP conversation. An 18 or 19-point per game player will never win the award, but his stat line is a mosaic of crooked numbers. And topping it off, every major stat—excluding the one-tenth of a point drop in PPG—is up this season, most notable being his insane efficiency across his shooting splits.

And he’s been a vastly underrated defender, often exhibiting the type of defense coach Mike Brown yearns to see.

On top of it all, he’s playing with a fractured thumb.

There really isn’t much more to say. All-around, the big man has been great and Monte McNair got exactly what he thought he was getting.

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[…] the all star break, we assigned grades to each player based on their “first half” performances. With the regular season long […]


[…] [ February 20, 2023 ] First Half Grades: The Starters Basketball […]

Dan Smith
9 months ago

Really agree with most of the starters grades. Huerter I think is correct with a B+, and Barnes, Murray are along the same lines. I’d give the two forwards a B+ also, but maybe an A- for Murray factoring in he is a rook after all. Domas I would give the A+ to and Fox a straight up A. Both are having huge impact on their teams, so kudos to them both!