One of the most pleasant surprises from Sacramento’s opening night victory was Sasha Vezenkov.
There was never any worry about his shooting. He was one of the very best in Europe and his quick, smooth shot release looks like the best on the team. He drained his first attempt and ended the night 2 of 5 from three-point range.
Nor was there much concern about his rebounding, which was illustrated perfectly in his tip-in put-back in the first quarter. Though he finished with just two boards, he was constantly getting involved down low in the team’s effort to work the glass, which can be seen when he was fouled early in the fourth trying to complete a stop.
The biggest question and the lone aspect of his game that could threaten his minutes is his defense. He made slight improvements here and there, but overall, he was not very convincing throughout the preseason.
And yet, in his NBA debut, there was not too much to complain about on that end of the floor.
Vezenkov was far from perfect as a defender. At one point, he got caught in the air as Kelly Olynyk decelerated on a drive for a score. But the other less savory instances were saturated with admirable effort, both in approach and recovery. In the second he was beat by the swifter Ochai Agbaji, but managed to get up an effective contest to force a miss. Then he was not quick enough to draw a charge on Jordan Clarkson, instead getting whistled with a blocking foul, but he was stranded on an island with an athletic and crafty player, managing, at the very least, to avoid getting totally beat. Like the job on Agbaji, Vezenkov, in the fourth, switched onto Talen Horton-Tucker, who got down hill, but was disrupted by the former EuroLeague MVP’s contest.
The rest of his time on defense made a difference. In fact, he utilized some great use of hands and instincts to come up with 2 steals on the night. In the first quarter, while backpedalling, he poked the ball loose from a driving Kris Dunn. In transition defense in the fourth, he deflected a pass for a takeaway, making a silly pass look just that. And soon after that, he knocked the ball loose after Utah secured a defensive rebound, giving the Kings a second opportunity.
Admittedly, the Kings did a nice job of disguising Vezenkov defensively, putting him on centers Walker Kessler and Olynyk while quicker players like John Collins were guarded by Domantas Sabonis.
There’s no shame in that though. Doing so prevents the exploitation of Vezenkov’s subpar athleticism on that end of the floor, and with that, he still managed to use his hands and contests well.
It seems Vezenkov got the nod in this game due to Trey Lyles’ calf injury, which prevented him from action, but if the former can defend as he did on Wednesday—that is to say, be just good enough—then it could allow for the two of them to play on the floor together. Lyles is not necessarily quick, but he’s quicker than Vezenkov, and putting the Bulgarian on bigger players, again, avoids exploitation. Furthermore, the most important thing is the spacing those two can create in tandem.
However, it may depend on matchups. Even still, the Kings are still equipped with two viable true centers in JaVale McGee—who was perfect from the field with no fouls or turnovers against the Jazz—and Alex Len, providing a lot of different options for Mike Brown.
By avoiding being a liability on defense—which was always a possibility—Vezenkov really widens the possible combinations Sacramento can utilize.
It was just a single game and the Jazz did not look very impressive for most of it, so it’ll be intriguing to see what he does tonight against the Warriors, who will be without Draymond Green. Golden State is a more athletic team than Utah, and if Lyles can’t go again, it could present a bigger challenge, but one that could be good for Vezenkov as he continues adjusting to a faster, more dynamic iteration of the game.