The biggest topic coming out of the preseason was Kevin Huerter, who struggled on both ends of the floor.
Coach Mike Brown has been on his team about defense, giving a stern talking-to to his guys after practice on Thursday ahead of the season opener. He’s repeatedly said there are multiple guys who need to step it up defensively, but Huerter stands at the forefront of that conversation as the starting two-guard.
On the offensive end, where Huerter is most valuable, he shot just 32.4% from the field and 22.7% from deep. He missed three’s, but he also had trouble getting the ball through the net inside the arc as well.
Thus it was Huerter who may have been the player to watch most intently in Sacramento’s impressive 130-114 victory in Utah.
So how’d he do?
Starting with his strong suit, Huerter displayed no offensive resurgence, going 3 of 9 from the floor, including 1 of 5 from three-point range.
As Brown has said, Huerter—a career 38.5% three-point shooter coming into the season—is a high-caliber scorer, and he trusts his guy to continue putting up those shots.
“If (Huerter) misses some shots, I believe in his shooting ability,” Brown said last Thursday following the final preseason game. “He’s shown he’s able to do that his entire career. I don’t ever want him hesitating or not taking a shot.”
And the head coach knows that there is need for an adjustment when the effort level is being turned up defensively.
“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,” Brown added later in that presser.
While Huerter’s intent on the defensive end is definitely higher, the results have not gotten much better. That was visible on Wednesday night in Salt Lake City.
Again, his intent is there, and it produced a few solid efforts. At one point, he held his own against a bigger Lauri Markkanen. And, early in the game, he was somewhat disruptive against Talen Horton-Tucker after going through a screen—and this aforementioned intent is always on display out of the gate, as it was in the second preseason game against Golden State.
But what about as the game goes on?
Even with the right objective in mind, things don’t always end well. Such was the case when he committed a foul on a good help attempt on a switch, which wasn’t a terrible foul, but it was reminiscent of something he tends to do. To his credit, at least it wasn’t a careless slap at the ball as he’s prone to doing.
Moreover, his foot speed and subpar athleticism really hurts him. It seems he’s always in a state of playing catch up, as he did in the middle of the first period when he fouled a driving Jordan Clarkson. A similar such thing happened in the second as well. Not to mention his susceptibility to clear-cut blow-by’s, which occurred quite blatantly against Clarkson in the third.
Similarly, Huerter would lose a step to his man off-ball as well. He was also struggling—though he wasn’t the lone offender—at staying with his man after a screen action that Utah used to get multiple high-percentage looks inside. In fact, in that latter example, it was hard to say where Huerter’s attention was.
But the ugliest moment—and the one that triggered a frustrated Mike Brown to call a timeout—was when Huerter did not stay with Markannen, who had an easy path to the rim for an alley-oop throwdown in transition.
Kayte Christensen opined on the broadcast that the Jazz all-star was Domantas Sabonis’ man, but that did not appear to be the case. For one, Sabonis was guarding John Collins for most of the game, and Collins was just coming up half court as Markkanen made his break to the basket. And secondly, in any transition situation, Brown is always hollering “find a body” out to his team, and Huerter clearly failed to do that. Maybe it was a miscommunication, but he left that lane wide open while standing far too idle.
To be fair, there is plenty to point out about Malik Monk’s defense too. Monk had trouble getting through similar screen actions, allowing easy looks for the Jazz. But it’s different in the big picture: Monk’s production is far better as a more multifaceted offensive player, and despite his mistakes on the other end, he had some nice moments defensively when contesting shots. After all, Monk finished the game with 2 blocked shots, and he committed to a fearless contest that resulted in him getting dunked on (though, nothing compares in magnitude to his monster jam in the second quarter).
Sasha Vezenkov is also a guy that could be considered under a microscope defensively. In his debut, the coaches tried to hide him, having him guard centers like Walker Kessler and Kelly Olynyk while, again, Sabonis often checked Collins, but even still, the former EuroLeague MVP had some surprisingly solid moments. Instinctually, Vezenkov is sound, and he used those instincts with sharp use of his hands to have a few poke-away’s and deflections. And against the quicker Horton-Tucker, he didn’t look too bad. If anything, Vezenkov had a good defensive night in place of the injured Trey Lyles considering this was his first in-season game in the NBA and considering his defense looked suspect in preseason.
So zooming back in on Huerter, the same problems coming out of preseason remain for him with one game in the books.
It is one game, and there’s plenty of time for Huerter to improve his defense and subsequently get back in a rhythm offensively.
But how long is his leash?
Chris Duarte would be the candidate to take the starting shooting guard spot, and while he had a few overambitious defensive efforts that resulted in fouls (he had 3 total), he is clearly one of the better perimeter defenders on the team, up there with De’Aaron Fox and Davion Mitchell as coach Brown assessed midway through camp. And it’s important to note that he went 3 of 4 from beyond the arc.
And while not in the rotation to start, rookie Colby Jones demonstrated that he too brings a presence of plus-defense. In all, he looks like a natural NBA role player. It’s only a matter of time for the first-year player out of Xavier to get his opportunity.
Huerter is going to be given some time to sort things out, but if he doesn’t, there are other guys capable of coming in.
It was just one game, but Kevin Huerter’s leash probably isn’t that long. There are others that can step up, and the Kings need their defense to be at a standard that’s capable of helping them go from good to great amid a loaded conference.
Mike Brown has articulated that sentiment, most notably with what he told reporters after practice on Tuesday.
“I’m not going to sit here and watch us play the same way we did defensively last year without making changes,” Brown declared.