Despite the fact last year’s starting five was one of the more efficient lineups and was the group that played the most minutes together, this preseason has made room for a conversation about a potential change.
In the third preseason game against the Warriors at home on Sunday, Chris Duarte started while Kevin Huerter came off the bench for the first time in his tenure with Sacramento. Duarte had played so well against the Lakers in the previous contest that Mike Brown couldn’t help but “experiment” with the lineup. And in his start, Duarte continued to prove that while he’s maybe not as elite of a shooter as Huerter, his defense is such that he’s clearly defined himself as the better two-way performer.
Though it was a challenge for multiple players on the team, coach Brown’s comments about the need to enforce more physical defense in pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff scenarios appeared primarily directed at his de facto starting two-guard.
With Duarte out for the remainder of the preseason with a bone bruise in his knee that he suffered in the second quarter of Sunday’s game, Huerter was inserted into the starting lineup at the Chase Center on Wednesday night against Golden State, and it produced an opportunity for the sharpshooter to display some growth on the defensive end.
In the opening minutes, Huerter came out with an emphatic response to his coach’s challenge. Similar to the previous game with Duarte in the starting lineup, the first five on the floor came out swinging on both ends, and number-9 was a discernible contributor on defense, displaying some urgency to show he can be better on that side of the ball.
After starting the game with a three-pointer on offense, Huerter was quick to disrupt a Warriors dribble-handoff with an ardent stab at going over the screen while using some active hands to help create a turnover on the second defensive possession.
On the next defensive opportunity, he provided some tough help to aid Domantas Sabonis against Jonathan Kuminga, who was forced to pass, after which Harrison Barnes came away with a blocked shot on rookie Trayce Jackson-Davis’ attempt.
However, a little later, he had the right idea to help De’Aaron Fox against the taller Andrew Wiggins, but used his hands with little discipline to slap at the ball—which resulted in a shooting foul—rather than coming in with high hands and pressure like he did on the previous Warriors possession. Luckily, Wiggins went just 1 for 2 at the line.
A bit later in the first, Huerter ran hard to go around a screen to prevent a Klay Thompson three-point opportunity, but had to chase him as he drove downhill the other way, requiring Sabonis to step up to help, ensuing a minor team scramble before Kuminga got by a close out from Keegan Murray and dropped a finger roll through the net.
His foul was likely a disappointment to Brown, but the job against Thompson is hard to complain about given the Golden State guard is an all-time great three-point shooter. That latter effort obviously led to Huerter chasing—something Brown explicitly noted as a problem—but it did not come from a soft approach to the opponent’s screen.
From his satisfactory moments to his poorer moments early in the game, a conclusion could be drawn that Huerter’s effort and presence of mind to be more physical was better. Furthering that notion was the fact he made a concerted effort to crash the glass throughout the game, fighting and trying to get his body on guys to compete for a board multiple times. In fact, he had a nice offensive board later on in the second half.
Closing out the first half, he committed a good, hard foul against Dario Saric to prevent a shot attempt down low after switching onto the bigger man. Though it’s less remarkable, he also had an instance where he stepped in as the low man to force a pass to the outside, and—again, luckily—Wiggins missed the open attempt from beyond the arc.
Though his effort to be physical was there, Huerter still has plenty of work to do to be a better defender. A 38-year-old Chris Paul was too fast for Huerter’s feet near the end of the second period, but Paul missed the mid-range jumper he created.
That wasn’t all from his attempts to guard the 19-year vet. In half number-two, Paul continued to be much quicker than Huerter on a handful of other instances.
Additionally, on a play where he switched from Steph Curry onto Moses Moody after a pass, Huerter’s close out really highlighted his heavy feet as Moody effortlessly drove into the lane to eat up the empty space and—with Sabonis obligated to step into the paint—dump it off to Jackson-Davis, who was fouled and sent to the line.
One can’t ask for Huerter to assume true two-way player status in the matter of days, but his ambition to provide his best effort was palpable. Even still, he remains an average, if not subpar, athlete in regards to moving his feet.
He can continue to be more physical when it comes to fighting through screens, and one should expect that to trend in the right direction with more repetition and enforcement (so long as his conditioning doesn’t lead to a burnout later in the year), but how much development can he show athletically?
The answer to that may not be as easily gilded with sparkling optimism.
In life, though, one has to focus on controlling what one can control. There probably isn’t a world where Huerter achieves the same defensive prowess as Chris Duarte, but he can continue to up his physicality and work on better fundamentals to limit the exploitation of his athletic deficiencies.
This was a decent start to stepping up to the challenge from his head coach. And with the probability still being high that he starts on opening night, he can really do a lot in securing his place in the five-man group that played 900 minutes together a season ago.
Besides, in terms of defense, eyes may be more focused on Malik Monk, who—in addition to committing 4 turnovers—did not look all that impressive on defense yet again. On one glaring play in the fourth quarter, he totally lost both sight and contact with his man Gary Payton II on a backdoor cut that led to him finishing with a reverse layup.
Again, as it pertains to Kevin Huerter, he made some positive steps—not enormous by any means, but he was again a bit better than the previous game, which was more superior to his first two preseason performances. While marginally better, he still has plenty of work to do in responding to Mike Brown’s challenge.