The NBA regular season returns to action this week as the Sacramento Kings look to build off of the success of last year.
A 1-4 record in preseason games is not likely indicative of what’s to come, especially with multiple guys—all the way from De’Aaron Fox to Kessler Edwards—having expressed how well the team has been competing in practice. At the same time, there were a lot of things to key in on after five preseason games.
What are some takeaways from these preseason contests that can illuminate some of the mystery of what lies in store for the 2023-24 season?
Rookie Colby Jones is a natural
After the first few games this preseason, it was looking like Colby Jones was a natural NBA role player. With all five of those games, in the books, that seems to be creeping towards certainty as each performance from the rookie looked better than the last.
Despite being a second round pick, he really feels more like a first rounder, garnering praise from his head coach, teammates, and those that cover the team.
The most pleasing characteristic he’s displayed is his ability to simply do what Mike Brown wants him to do. He brings a form of physicality on defense, providing solid pressure and translating his navigation through screens from college to this level; he is always crashing the glass; he’s remained poised as a ball handler; off the ball, he makes hard and timely cuts; and he’s taken and hit open outside shots.
Pretty much whenever he was on the floor—regardless of the unit—the team has performed well.
Moreover, since he had just one good shooting season at Xavier, it was extremely promising that he got 9 of 22 three-pointers to fall (40.9%).
Brown sought to use him mostly as a third point guard, but Jones is pushing the envelope on more play time and opportunities for the season ahead.
“I’m loving that he’s making my job harder,” Brown said in reference to the rookie after Thursday’s win against the Jazz. “I love it, but every time we’ve thrown him out there, he just keeps getting better and better and better and better, and his demeanor is the same.”
Kevin Huerter’s place in the starting five is not all that secure
Early in training camp, Mike Brown said he was looking to give the same starting five a go, but added that “if somebody steps up and separates themselves from the rest of the pack” it’s his job “to make hard those decisions.”
It seemed like a distant possibility given how well the starting five played last season, but it took just a few games for it to become more plausible.
Chris Duarte quickly got things on track after a poor first preseason game, bringing a true two-way element when he saw the hardwood. Meanwhile, Kevin Huerter was struggling to apply the preachings of physicality on defense, receiving a challenge from his head coach.
Looking to experiment with different lineups, Duarte got the start in the third preseason game, and the starting unit looked even better. Huerter was going to start the following game, but with Duarte missing the remainder of the preseason with a bone bruise in his knee, it was time for the redhead to show improvement.
Huerter looked slightly better defensively in the second Warriors game, but for much of that game, as well as in the Utah game, his weaknesses still surfaced.
Should Duarte start over Huerter?
As Mike Brown said, he’s going to go with the same starting five, but one cannot assume Huerter’s leash will be all that long. Duarte could easily fill in as the starter, and a guy like Colby Jones could earn rotational minutes. Very clearly, Huerter isn’t assured anything.
Furthermore, in addition to Duarte being the far better defender, he’s actually had a better preseason in terms of scoring efficiency. After all, Huerter shot just 5 of 22 from beyond the arc (22.7%), and worse, converted only 12 of his 37 field goal attempts (32.4%).
Of course, Huerter can put this all behind him quickly.
First of all, he can make strides defensively. How fast that can happen is unclear, but if he makes discernible steps in the right direction, he can preserve his role.
Secondly, his offensive struggles could be a product of finding a balance between trying to bring more physicality on defense with hitting the shots he’s used to hitting offensively.
“When you are playing that much harder defensively and your physicality is increased … it’s a different shot on the other end of the floor. It just is,” coach Brown said Thursday night after being asked about Huerter’s shooting troubles. “Until you get used to it — playing that hard all the time, playing that physical all the time — until you get used to it, you may struggle to make shots that you normally make.”
Again, Malik Monk is going to be one of the team’s best players
Through the first four games, Malik Monk did not look like the caliber of player people saw last year. It may be preseason basketball, but in that time, Monk hit only 7 of 22 shots from the field (31.8%), including just 3 of 15 three-pointers (20.0%), and that was on top of some really subpar defense.
But in the final contest on Thursday, Monk snapped back into form, going 9 of 19 from the field (47.4%) while sinking 3 of 8 from deep (37.5%) to go along with 8 assists. Along with that, he brought a better focus to the defensive end, avoiding the backdoor cuts he allowed earlier and bringing a better sense of toughness against opponents’ screens.
“I was being a little laidback too much in the preseason this year,” Monk admitted after Thursday’s victory. “So I had to step it up the last game to go into the regular season, and that’s what I did.”
Both honest and confident in those comments, it’s probable that he’ll pick up where he left off last season. Perhaps that’s not a surprise—it likely isn’t—but after four mediocre to poor performances there was some cause for concern.
Davion Mitchell’s confidence is at an all-time high
Entering his third season, many are expecting Davion Mitchell to take considerable steps forward. If his confidence is any indication, then he’ll be able to do that without issue.
Mitchell also drew a technical foul in the second game against the Lakers. Not only was it odd that there was a T in a preseason game, but it was odd that Davion Mitchell was the one that picked it up considering he’s had none through two NBA seasons.
Similar to Harrison Barnes’ first technical in years this past March—which signaled the fire burning within as he was playing meaningful basketball down the stretch—this seemed to be a significant thing for Mitchell.
And most of all, he appears more comfortable with his three-point shot, which he clearly made adjustments to this offseason. In 5 preseason games, Mitchell sank 10 of 26 three-pointers (38.5%), which was third best among guys who have hoisted at least 12 attempts.
Exactly how this season goes for Davion Mitchell is something many are waiting in anticipation to learn, but the heightened confidence is palpable and may point to great things for the third-year guard.
JaVale McGee may be good, but Alex Len can challenge him for minutes
JaVale McGee was a good pickup.
Not only is he a veteran presence with ample championship experience, he provides a combination of mobility and rim protection that can help the team as a rotational member. In addition to that, he offers adequate decision making with the ball in his hands, something he’ll do a lot in this offense.
What’s more, he appeared to form a nice partnership with Malik Monk in the pick-and-roll, connecting with the great facilitator on multiple lobs and dump off’s.
But one issue this preseason that could be a problem if not corrected was his susceptibility to turnovers. In 3 games, he averaged 2.7 turnovers in 13.4 minutes per, which was the highest rate on the team.
Mike Brown has expressed that those kinds of mistakes cannot happen at that volume as the backup center.
“He’ll average around 12 minutes or so (per game), but we can’t have him making three (or) four turnovers while he’s out there during that time,” the head coach assessed in regards to McGee.
On top of that, McGee’s urge to block shots—while earnest and helpful—did produce a few instances of him fouling three-point shooters.
Alex Len, on the other hand, was solid while being forced into the “third unit” a lot of the time. And in the two instances where he saw considerable minutes with more key players—that being the first game against the Warriors with McGee out and the Jazz game with Domantas Sabonis out—Len showed he’s more than solid.
After all, Len was great as the backup 5 in the final 8 games of the regular season a year ago while also performing admirably in the playoffs before playing small became a useful adjustment.
This preseason, Len continued to play with sharp awareness, good half court pace, effective finishing skills (71.4% from the field), and with strong rim protection in his own right (1.5 blocks per, 0.2 more than McGee while committing less fouls). And in terms of turnovers, he averaged 3.4 per 36 minutes to McGee’s 6.4 committed.
McGee will have the first go as the backup 5, and he should improve along the way, likely gaining more comfort within the system and sharpening his rapport with Monk. But if turnovers and fouls continue, Alex Len is right there as a true center that can provide backup minutes to Sabonis.
Keon Ellis can help out the NBA squad
Almost a Colby Jones-lite this preseason in terms of pleasing efforts was Keon Ellis.
Ellis demonstrated that he’d made strides as a ball handler and facilitator in Summer League play, and he showed a little bit of that this preseason.
More importantly, his active defense and strong instincts were on full display in his time these past few weeks.
Not only does he look more comfortable at this level, he looked more and more like a safety the way he could disrupt opposing offenses while also bringing a nice effort in terms of ball pressure.
There are plenty of names that stand above him on the roster, but if injuries or missed time befall any of those guys, Ellis has earned a lot of confidence from the coaching staff to fill in seamlessly in his second professional season.
On a two-way deal, he’ll have a chance to continue to develop in the G League, but an NBA impact—even if slight—seems more and more likely.
Sasha Vezenkov’s defense is a work in progress
His offense shouldn’t be a problem with a shooting stroke like that, and his mindfulness to do some of the little things—namely on the glass—is a definite asset, but Sasha Vezenkov’s defense does not quite look up to par quite yet.
Vezenkov’s feet are not nearly fast enough to immediately bring a baseline of defense that can help him have a more prominent rotational role. There were plenty of moments this preseason where he gave up the middle of the floor, either in one-on-one situations or on closeouts, where opponents could go right by him.
His effort and understanding of the challenge at hand are strong though. That could help him gain a better understanding of and comfort with defending NBA players without his athletic deficiencies being totally exploited.
However, this is clearly a work in progress that could take some time.
Among a 10-man rotation, Vezenkov is in it, but if he wants to be the eighth or ninth man, the improvement on defense is necessary.
Kessler Edwards sure could play the 4
He’s far from a premier player, but considering he was such a massive help late last season, it’s important to note that Kessler Edwards has proven he can be more dynamic despite being buried beneath a deeper roster.
One of the things that stood out from Edwards’ Summer League performance in July was his effort on the glass and his exposure to guarding 4’s.
In his expanded opportunity on Thursday with Fox, Sabonis, Keegan Murray, Duarte, and Trey Lyles out, Edwards showed more of that, grabbing a team-high 8 rebounds and playing a fair amount at the 4.
On top of that, he came into camp much stronger this year.
James Ham asked him Thursday night about whether his bulking up had to do with an intention to be more of a 4 this season, and Edwards modestly said yes.
“As long as I can still be fast, but yeah (there was a focus on) being able to guard these stronger dudes,” he said.
It is a deeper roster and Edwards likely won’t be more than a 34 to 35% three-point shooter, but his ability to be a more versatile option could very well earn him more opportunities this season.