The concerns from the preseason starkly manifested themselves in the first two regular season games, but Kevin Huerter got things moving in the right direction during the Kings’ 132-127 overtime win over the Lakers on Sunday night.
At face value, it was easy to see that Huerter got his outside shot—his primary monkey-maker—to start falling, going 3 of 7 from deep, including a clutch make with about 30 seconds remaining in the overtime period that put Sacramento up by 5 points.
This was bound to happen. As his coaches and teammates have all said, Huerter has been an elite three-point shooter throughout his career. His shot attempts—from the preseason to Sunday night—have been quality looks that fall within the rhythm of the offense. It was a matter of time.
Mike Brown had expanded on the patience he has in his guy, noting earlier in the month that when a player provides stronger effort on defense, it requires an adjustment on offense.
However, for all the focus on Huerter, his offensive struggles were an added element on top of the defensive issues. Quite frankly, the starting two guard’s defensive showings have played him off the floor more than a few missed jump shots have early in the season.
While it was a positive sign for the Kings to see him regain an offensive feel, it was all the more promising that he did so with discernible defensive improvements in the game against Los Angeles.
It was the improvements on that end that truly signal that Huerter may be turning things around and thus protecting his place in the starting lineup.
Through it all, it hasn’t been for lack of trying. After he was challenged by his head coach in the preseason to raise the floor of his defensive output, Huerter’s intentions to bring physical defense were always clear. The results have been mixed, and really, throughout the first two games, it looked dismal.
At home against LA, he pieced together some nice moments to have a defensive performance that was a clear progression compared to his past two.
Though, to be crystal clear, this was not necessarily an on-ball upgrade. Huerter clearly has athletic deficiencies. A few times, he let guys go right by him on hard close outs to force help, and once he sacrificed sound fundamentals (namely high hands) to try and stay with a quicker D’Angelo Russell only to get whistled for a foul. But foot quickness is something that is hard to improve.
What Huerter did was find every other way to impact the game as a defender, which is all anyone can ask for.
After the game, Brown used the term “rearview challenge” to describe help contests, which is different from careless reaches and slaps that risk a bad foul, something Huerter’s been a culprit of plenty of times in the past. Rather, as the head coach explained, it’s instinctual help that aids in creating team-wide coverage.
In the fourth quarter, Huerter exemplified this beautifully by closing in behind Anthony Davis who was passed the ball after a roll. Huerter had the awareness to know that Davis had his back to Russell on the perimeter, sharply rising up to meet the ball without hesitation.
As noted many times before, Brown isn’t a big fan of blocked shots, but exceptions would include when they arise from vertical contests and help contests like Huerter’s.
Huerter’s other blocked shot classifies as another exception because he worked hard to get up a good contest on a three-point shot, sending Austin Reaves’ attempt back down to earth again.
As a team defender, Huerter was decisive. The blocked three illustrated that, but so did a defensive possession early in the game. It was a team stop and Huerter played his part, meeting up with Harrison Barnes to blitz LeBron James, forcing a series of passes and a Lakers miss. Scrambles are not necessarily what a team wants, but when sending a double, it’s often the reality. Not only did Huerter get his chest up against James and get his hands high in the air, he swiftly ran down to help Domantas Sabonis down low; and had Taurean Prince attempted a layup, Huerter easily could have had one of those “rearview challenge” blocks, but he sprayed it out and the earnest scramble effort helped force a missed three after LA swung it to the wing.
Arguably the most pleasing thing to see was Huerter grabbing 3 defensive rebounds in the overtime period. All of them were critical, but two were particularly strong. There was one where he got up higher than Anthony Davis to secure the stop, and there was another where he essentially did the same thing, but in addition, he fended off two Lakers to finish the defensive possession.
With all the changes that come with upping the physicality, the idea of a rhythm—not just offensively, but defensively as well—really stood out because Huerter looked so in tune with his teammates.
And that was why he walked away with the Defensive Player of the Game chain.
Though he won it, Huerter did not wear it to his post game presser. Maybe this is mere opinion, but that appears to be an indication that he’s not yet satisfied, that he knows he has to continue working and getting better.
What’s not to love about that from the standpoint of purely evaluating the human spirit? He was resilient and reaped the rewards, but to Huerter, he knows the required discipline is a ceaseless pursuit.
There’s still more work to be done, for Huerter and for the rest of the team.
Nevertheless, this game could be a sign that Kevin Huerter may be turning things around in the right direction on both sides of the ball.