Final Grades: The Starting Five

SACRAMENTO, CA - MARCH 27: Domantas Sabonis #10 of the Sacramento Kings high fives teammates Kevin Huerter #9, Keegan Murray #13, DeAaron Fox #5, and Harrison Barnes #40 during a timeout in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves on March 27, 2023 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 2023 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)

The accolades were abounding for the Kings this past season. Nobody expected Sacramento to be the third ranked team in their conference, nobody anticipated they’d be one of the most consistent squads from start to finish. Collectively, they put together a historic season—mainly on the offensive side of the ball—but it ultimately came to an end with a game seven loss to the defending champions, which in itself was more than many thought they could ask for just seven months ago.

Nevertheless, the success of this season was widely recognized. From Monte McNair down, several members of the organization were awarded for their achievements. Executive of the Year, Coach of the Year, the Clutch Player award, the rebounding champion, an All-Rookie first team selection, and some All-NBA talent, among others, have all put a spotlight on the acute contributions made.

It was the coalescence of these individual impacts that created such success, therefore it’s worth assessing those of the entire roster. 

At the all star break, we assigned grades to each player based on their “first half” performances. With the regular season long since finished and with a playoff series behind them, now comes an opportunity for an additional evaluation based on the initial grades and a grade for both the “second half” and the postseason, which can then lead to a final grade.

Each player is graded based on their specific role and individual expectations, not on overall value or rating. And then taking into account the grades for the pre- and post-all star/playoff segments, an overall one can be assigned. 

So, to start, here are the final grades for the Kings’ starting five.

De’Aaron Fox’s final grade: A+

Season: 25.0 PPG (.512/.324/.780) 4.2 RPG 6.1 APG in 73 games (33.4 minutes per)

Post-All Star: 25.5 PPG (.525/.322/.736) 4.0 RPG 6.0 APG in 21 games (31.7 minutes per)

Playoffs: 27.4 PPG (.424/.333/.756) 5.4 RPG 7.7 APG in 7 games (38.5 minutes per)

First half grade: A+

Second half/postseason grade: A+

In the “first half,” De’Aaron Fox hit the ground running to start the season, made discernible improvements to his defensive engagement, enhanced the impact of his leadership, and made the all star team, thus earning him an A+ for checking practically every box available. To close the season, it was more of the same.

Shortly following the birth of his son in early February, Fox entered the all star break strong with four straight games of 30 or more points. Out of the break, he tacked on another four contests of 30-plus scoring, playing a massive part in the Kings winning 9 of their first 11 games out of the break and securing that third spot in the conference that many thought would elude Sacramento, particularly following the trade deadline. 

In the playoffs, Fox’s greatness continued its radiance, thriving in the elevated atmosphere of postseason play on both ends and to such a degree that, within the span of a few weeks, Fox earned the rightful recognition for the work he’d been putting in throughout the previous six seasons in a Kings uniform. Plus, he played through a fractured fingertip on his shooting hand, appearing to never skip a beat.

As one of the NBA’s very best guards and the league’s most clutch player, Fox surpassed expectations from start to finish this season, only raising the standard for the seasons that follow. 

Kevin Huerter’s final grade: B-

Season: 15.2 PPG (.485/.402/.725) 3.3 RPG 2.9 APG in 75 games (29.4 minutes per)

Post-All Star: 16.0 PPG (.502/.428/.821) 3.3 RPG 3.0 APG in 21 games (26.4 minutes per)

Playoffs: 9.1 PPG (.347/.205/.750) 4.4 RPG 1.1 APG in 7 games (26.2 minutes per)

First half grade: B+

Second half/postseason grade: C+

In terms of the post-all star segment of the regular season and the seven game series against Golden State, it was a night and day difference in the play of Kevin Huerter.

After a miserable February where he shot 29.2% from beyond the arc, Huerter put together a month of March that was reminiscent of his hot start through the first month or so of the regular season, averaging 18.3 points per game on 53.5% from the field and 51.1% from three. It appeared he was entering a dominant groove as the postseason approached, especially from deep, which is the aspect of his game that is most impactful and was most sought after when Monte McNair acquired him last summer.

However, the playoffs featured a drop off that made even the biggest Red Velvet fans wince as his best weapon was almost entirely thwarted throughout the series.

His resurgence in March seemed to put to rest the questions surrounding his conditioning within Mike Brown’s high-paced, high-movement style of play, which were initially brought up because it appeared to contribute to a steady dip in his production earlier in the season. Everything was looking up, but his drop off in the conference quarterfinals brought those concerns back to the forefront, and not only on the offensive end, but also on the defensive end where his deficiencies were on full display. 

Continuing to run up and down the floor into April and having to fight through some solid perimeter pressure against dribble handoffs are two things that amount to a tough physical task, hence why he recognizes that “being in really good shape” is a vital objective for this offseason and going forward.

Overall, both his defensive shortcomings—namely when it comes to on-ball coverage and preventing blow-by’s—and his lack of consistency as an offensive producer were hard to ignore in the postseason, and it was a significant reason why the Kings could not overcome the Warriors in the first round as well as to why he got a C+ in the second half/playoffs.

Harrison Barnes’ final grade: B

Season: 15.0 PPG (.473/.374/.847) 4.5 RPG 1.6 APG in 82 games (32.5 minutes per)

Post-All Star: 15.3 PPG (.477/.374/.880) 4.2 RPG 1.5 APG in 25 games (32.0 minutes per)

Playoffs: 10.7 PPG (.417/.240/.731) 3.4 RPG 0.7 APG in 7 games (28.1 minutes per)

First half grade: A-

Second half/postseason grade: C+

Right alongside Huerter as the most disappointing Kings players in the playoffs was Harrison Barnes, who posted the lowest overall +/- in that seven game series (-8.9).

Barnes closed out the regular season well, continuing his consistency and his ability to be a stabilizing presence on this ascending club. Not to mention he maintained his intangible impact as a veteran with championship experience, one that could focus on filling up whichever column of the box score that was necessary for that specific game.

Though, aside from the intangibles, a few statement dunks, and a nice third quarter in game five, Barnes was often invisible in the playoffs. And so much so that he logged just 29 minutes total in the final two games of a series where he averaged 28 minutes of play. Worse, following a season where he had some impact performances on defense—games where he guarded guys like Pascal Siakam, LeBron James, and others—his rating on that end was the worst of all players that appeared in all seven contests.

His impact as a veteran leader and the fact he was slightly more efficient than Huerter might suggest he was the lesser of the two postseason bummers, but given the expectations around the former champ that never surfaced in April, Barnes allowed a lot of doubt to creep in surrounding the discussion of whether or not to bring him back next season.  

Keegan Murray’s final grade: A

Season: 12.2 PPG (.453/.411/.765) 4.6 RPG 1.2 APG in 80 games (29.8 minutes per)

Post-All Star: 12.9 PPG (.475/.404/.667) 4.7 RPG 1.6 APG in 25 games (30.3 minutes per)

Playoffs: 9.7 PPG (.448/.375/.667) 6.3 RPG 0.7 APG in 7 games (27.7 minutes per)

First half grade: A-

Second half/postseason grade: A

Talk about a steady upward trajectory.

In the first half, Keegan Murray was doing all anyone could ask of him. He was a first-year starter that was hitting from deep and, more importantly, never lost sight of either his confidence or his role on this team. During the post-all star period, he continued his improvement, putting the ball on the floor a lot more to take a higher variety of looks, including mid-range shots and floaters. He never got in over his head, nor did he ever settle.

By the end of the regular season, he not only made improvements on defense, on the glass, and in terms of confidence, he also set the rookie record for three’s made with 206—which makes him the only first-year player to hit more than 200—and made the All-Rookie first team.

Better yet, he continued to impress in the postseason. Of course, adjusting to the intensity of that kind of play where the pressure is at its highest is tough for any player, and it’s all the more so for a rookie. After three games of looking slightly lost, Murray stepped up. 

In game three, Murray finally hit a three in garbage time; as meaningless as those three points were in that blowout loss, the significance of seeing one go down could not be ignored. And when he followed it up with four double digit scoring performances, it felt similar to the way he bounced back earlier in the season after a tough month of November that featured off-court difficulties that translated on the floor.

In that way, he just continued to ascend. And after such a big rookie season, fans and observers from around the league are looking forward to seeing how much higher he can climb in year two.

Domantas Sabonis’ final grade: A

Season: 19.1 PPG (.615/.373/.742) 12.3 RPG 7.3 APG in 79 games (34.6 minutes per)

Post-All Star: 19.8 PPG (.625/.471/.692) 12.4 RPG 8.1 APG in 24 games (34.7 minutes per)

Playoffs: 16.4 PPG (.495/.200/.571) 11.0 RPG 4.7 APG in 7 games (34.7 minutes per)

First half grade: A

Second half/postseason grade: A

Yes, Domantas Sabonis was nowhere near himself in the seven game series against the Warriors, but it was not the reason why his team came up short in round one; not as much as the collective drop off Huerter and Barnes exhibited at least. 

Heading into the series, it was evident that the matchup with Golden State did not favor Sabonis. As the big man said, the Warriors, who don’t feature much size, “play completely different than everyone else.”

It’s impossible to prove at this point, but it’s unlikely Sabonis would have succumb to the same struggles in a followup series against a bigger Lakers team as he did against the defending champions. Even so, he did not disappear completely.

Of course, Kevon Looney had his way on the boards at some significant stretches, but the gang rebounding (i.e. the help for Sabonis) was hit and miss. And there were periods where going small really helped Sacramento, but Domas’ Player Impact Estimate was still 10.9 throughout the series.

Perhaps that can be viewed as making excuses for the all star center, especially given the fact he was unable to take advantage of the open jump shot opportunities that were being given to him. But when has jump shooting ever contributed on a significant scale to his All-NBA caliber presence?

That doesn’t let him off the hook. Moving forward, he must try to improve his jump shot, which would not only help his scoring, but also his assists in that scenario, which were down in the series (4.7 after averaging 7.3 in the regular season).

With all the gripes about his series with Golden State, one may lose sight of just how consistent of a regular season he had. And he closed it out incredibly well, too, which was illustrated nicely by recording 8 of his 14 triple-doubles in the time following the all star break.

Even with the postseason, Sabonis had a remarkable season that included his third all star nod, the rebounding title, and him establishing himself as being a top-three player at his position.

However, having a full series with this group under his belt sure does raise the standard for next year’s postseason. Sabonis and his team have to be able to adapt more effectively to take that difficult next step.

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