Fox, Hield & Bagley III Lead All-Kings Awards

Kings.com’s Alex Kramers reveals his picks for MVP, Most Improved Player and more on his second annual team-only ballot.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

From Day 1 of the regular season, the Kings dominated the national NBA conversation as much as any other team, and prognosticators who made up their minds too early or pegged the team for a near-last place finish were forced to backtrack their takes.

With 39 wins – the most in franchise history since 2005-06 – the up-tempo squad proved its fast start in the unforgiving Western Conference wasn’t a mirage. By going toe-to-toe against the likes of the defending-champion Warriors and racking up statement wins against the Sixers and Thunder, Sacramento elevated from a feisty upstart to a tough out many opponents were hoping to avoid in the first round of the Playoffs.

The Kings’ no-longer-in-question legitimacy and newfound identity garnered respect from superstars around the League, and raised the profiles of many of the team’s young standouts – including De’Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III – from longshots to serious contenders in season-long award races.

The accounting firm of Ernst & Young will tabulate the official votes for Most Improved Player, Rookie of the Year and MVP in advance of the June 24 NBA Awards ceremony, but we don’t need to wait that long to honor the franchise building blocks responsible for the surge few saw coming.

After months of deliberations, here is how one writer determined the winners in the second annual All-Kings Awards.

Most Improved Player (tie), Defensive Player of the Year, MVP
De’Aaron Fox

Yes, Fox was so good as a sophomore, and the Kings were such a dramatically better team with him in the lineup, that he’s the leader in a two-man Most Improved Player race, the borderline-unanimous MVP and the runaway favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.

Few – if any – players ever made a leap as substantial as the second-year guard, who, in the span of a single season, graduated from an All-Rookie afterthought to a legitimate All-Star candidate.

Although his first-season stat line was promising (11.9 points and 4.4 assists) and he was one of top performers in the clutch, Fox ranked toward the bottom in many advanced metrics, including box-score plus-minus (-4.4), win shares (-0.6) and true-shooting percentage (47.8), according to basketball-reference.com.

The Kings were outscored by 10.1 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor, per NBA.com, and were actually 5.8 points worse when he was in the game compared to when he sat.

This season? The 21-year-old was a revelation, breaking down defenses with unmitigated control, flying in a blur from one end of the court to the other and whipping gorgeous passes to cutting teammates.

Search his name plus “fun” on Twitter, and your screen will be flooded with clips of No. 5 terrorizing opposing defenses with jaw-dropping speed, jazzy misdirection moves in traffic and Dunk-Contest-worthy throwdowns.

Fox notched seven games with at least 20 points and 10 assists – tied for 14th in the League – after zero such outings last year, and made remarkable strides in his efficiency across all major statistical categories; his PER increase (plus-6.9) was the biggest among all rotation players.

The 6-foot-3 floor general adjusted to the complexities of orchestrating an NBA offense, ranking in the 63rd percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler with 0.88 points per possession (PPP) compared to the 27th percentile as a rookie (0.70), per Synergy Sports.

His real plus-minus – a measure of a player's estimated impact on team performance, courtesy of ESPN.com – skyrocketed from –4.27 (77th of 79 qualified point guards) to 1.86 (16th of 102). Among his 2017 Draft class peers, that progress vaulted him from the bottom to a hair below the top spot, with only 0.07 net points per 100 possessions separating him from Donovan Mitchell (Jazz).

Fox, a player whose biggest weakness coming out of college was a steady perimeter jump shot, showed he’s already an above-average NBA three-point shooter, hovering around 37 percent on nearly twice as many attempts as his first year.

After adding upper body strength during the offseason, the Kentucky product not only finished through contact and over physical rim protectors – his 62.7 field goal percentage in the restricted area ranked ahead of Kyrie Irving (Celtics) – but posted the eighth-best free-throw rate (.378) at his position (min. 500 attempts).

The Kings scored 6.4 points more per 100 possessions with Fox on the court – a mark that ranks in the 86th percentile according to Cleaning the Glass. In other words, when he was in the game, Sacramento played at the level of a 44-win team; without him, the expected wins dropped to only 28.

With the unleashed, lightning-quick guard wreaking havoc in the open floor, the Kings led the League in both fast break (20.9 points per game) and transition scoring (27.4), while also maintaining the fourth-lowest turnover rate (12.8). Hardly anyone was more effective than Fox with a full head of steam: the speedster ranked sixth in transition possessions (5.2 per game) and ninth in points (5.5), while shooting 53 percent from the field and drawing a foul roughly a fifth of the time.

And then there’s the defensive end, where “Swipa” lived up to his nickname by using his quick hands and anticipation to pickpocket opposing ball-handlers (133 steals – sixth in the League), recover loose balls (0.9 per game – eighth), and swat shots (45 blocks – third among players under 6-foot-5). Fox made opponents pay for tossing careless passes with timely deflections and interceptions, and turned defense into offense with 4.0 points off turnovers (seventh).

Based on the metrics of Cleaning the Glass, Sacramento’s defense gave up 3.8 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the court (83rd percentile) and forced a turnover on 15.6 percent of opponents’ chances (84th).

The old adage is that second-year Lottery picks are expected to get better, so voters have historically shied away from rewarding sophomores with Most Improved honors. But whether or not his credentials are deemed worthy by the national media, based on his redefined career trajectory, Fox – like recent winners Giannis Antetokounmpo and Paul George – may soon find himself in the League-wide MVP conversation.

Most Improved Player (tie)
Buddy Hield

If Fox is the engine that revs Sacramento’s offense, then Hield is the perpetually-moving wheels – spinning at the highest velocity in the League and navigating through a terrain of screens for the most wide-open shot opportunities, per NBA.com.

No. 24’s motor and off-ball movement translated to an elite-level 1.21 PPP in transition, and combined with his near-automatic accuracy from downtown – 42.7 percent on 7.9 attempts per game – made him indispensable for the freewheeling Kings.

There’s not enough space to chronicle all the times “Buddy Buckets” fueled the team with “turn the sprinkler system on” three-point barrages, and either poured gasoline on a slim lead or ignited an improbable comeback. But one stat is telling: in the last five minutes of clutch time (ahead or behind by five points or fewer), only six players made more threes than Hield (14).

Earning the green light in his third season, the 6-foot-4 guard upped his scoring average from 13.5 to 20.7 points per game, the fifth-biggest jump in the League among regulars; set a franchise record for threes made (278 – the seventh-highest total in NBA history); and led the Kings in offensive win shares (4.3) and offensive box score plus-minus (3.1).

But while the Oklahoma alum evolved into a microwave scorer last season with similar shooting splits (44.6/43.1/87.7), his higher counting numbers weren’t simply the result of taking five additional shots per game.

Arguably the NBA’s most versatile long-range shooter outside of Stephen Curry, Hield improved his efficiency in both catch-and-shoot (46 percent – third among players with as many attempts) and pull-up situations (37.1 percent – fourth). Overall, the Bahamas native ranked in the 90th percentile in points per 100 shot attempts – up from 65th last year – per Cleaning the Glass.

A year ago, Hield came off the bench in all but 12 of his 80 appearances and thrived as the primary scoring option against second units, while typically relying on teammates to set him up for spot-up opportunities.

As a full-time starter in 2018-19, he showcased vastly improved ball-handling skills that allowed him to create space with quick step-backs and function as a secondary creator (a career-high 2.5 assists per game) alongside Fox or Bogdan Bogdanovic. More comfortable than ever with the ball in his hands, Hield cut his turnover rate down from 11.3 to 9.2 percent this season despite averaging nearly 20 more touches per game.

In most years, that type of development from a complementary role player to an ascending future All-Star would cement the 26-year-old at the top of Most Improved ballots.

Rookie of the Year
Marvin Bagley III

As his first NBA season progressed, Bagley showcased the unique skill set that made him one of the most dominant collegiate players in the nation and worthy of the No. 2 overall pick – and proved he’s more well-rounded than many around the League anticipated.

Among all qualified rookies, the springy forward ranked in the top five in scoring (14.9 points per game – fifth), rebounds (7.6 – third), double-doubles (19 – fourth) and blocks (1.0 – fifth). Since the All-Star break, No. 35 upped those averages to 18.5 points and 9.2 rebounds per outing, and racked up nine double-doubles in 19 contests.

Utilizing his incomparable second jump and hustle to snatch caroms off the iron, the 6-foot-11 forward was a force to be reckoned with on the offensive glass. Bagley ranked in the 84th percentile with 1.28 PPP on putbacks – sandwiched between Joel Embiid (85th) and Rudy Gobert (78th) – as well as tied for 13th in second-chance points (3.5 per game).

The bouncy big man faced up and spun around hapless defenders in the post from the moment he stepped foot on the NBA hardwood, but his outside shot began falling with more consistency in March. After making 11-of-53 attempts from distance over the prior four months, Bagley – a near-perfect big man for the modern NBA offense – drained 14-of-34 tries (41.2 percent) to close out his rookie season.

On the other end, those pogo-stick hops translated to a team-leading 3.2-percent block rate, and while he’s still learning defensive coverages, the Sacramento draftee answered criticisms about his defensive awareness and shortcomings as a rim protector. Ferociously swatting unsuspecting opponents, Bagley reduced his counterparts’ field goal percentage by 3.2 percent within six feet of the basket, per NBA.com, and finished sixth in defensive win shares (1.6) among rookies.

Although the Kings were 12.7 points per 100 possessions worse while the then-19-year-old was still adjusting to the NBA game in October and November, they played their competition to roughly a draw when he was on the floor ever since – a notable step in the right direction.

Primed for stardom, Bagley is a lock to make the All-Rookie Team, and ranks alongside rising stars Luka Doncic (Mavericks) and Trae Young (Hawks) as one of the most promising young phenoms in the League.

Honorable Mention: Harry Giles – The fellow Kings rookie found his groove as the season progressed, threading the needle with passes out of the high post and scoring both inside and out with impressive effectiveness. In 14 games following the All-Star break, Giles averaged 9.6 points on 51.8 percent from the field, 5.3 rebounds and 2.1 assists in only 18.1 minutes, while recording the best on-off court net rating among rotation players (plus-9.7).

6th Man of the Year
Marvin Bagley III

Considering No. 35 started only four games, the same gaudy stats that make him a viable Rookie of the Year candidate also place him in a premier echelon of super-subs.

Bagley, the best player on one of the most productive benches in the League – the “LITTY Committee” ranked fifth in points (42.7) and sixth in rebounds (18.2) – led all Sacramento backups in most traditional categories, as well as PER (18.9) and win shares (3.6). Across the League, he finished fourth in total rebounds (425), as well as ninth in points (843) and blocks (53) among reserves, despite playing far fewer games (58) than most of his peers.

Only two players logged more double-doubles off the bench than the Kings rookie (15), and the big man’s five outings with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds trailed only Montrezl Harrell (Clippers). Bagley also joined Domantas Sabonis (Pacers) as one of two qualified Sixth-Man candidates to average at least a dozen points and seven boards per outing.

When called upon, the Duke product served as the offensive focal point, and at times, rescued the team from sluggish starts with tireless effort on both ends. Like most ace Sixth Men, despite being on the pine at tip-off, Bagley often played starter minutes and into crunch time. Since the All-Star break, he accumulated more fourth-quarter minutes than starters Willie Cauley-Stein and Nemanja Bjelica, and responded by leading all regulars in both scoring (4.9 points) and rebounding (2.6).

During that timeframe, two of the Kings’ three most effective lineups featured the rookie big man in the front court; most notably, when Bagley and Giles played together with Fox, Hield and Harrison Barnes, Sacramento posted a plus-6.5 net rating.

Bagley – who averaged 20 points and 11.5 rebounds as a starter – has repeatedly demonstrated he has the confidence and capability to play any role, no matter the competition, and is a legitimate nightly 20-and-10 threat at the age of 20.

Honorable Mention: Bogdan Bogdanovic – No. 8’s true-shooting percentage dipped from 55.6 to 53 percent in his second season, but “Bogi” continued to be an immensely valuable veteran with career-high averages of 14.1 points, 3.8 assists and 3.5 rebounds per contest in slightly fewer minutes (27.8). The only players who matched those numbers off the bench were Dwyane Wade (Heat) and Dennis Schroder (Thunder). The Serbia native, a long-time clutch performer dating back to his overseas career, continued to come through in the closing seconds by burying a buzzer-beating three to topple the rival Lakers on Dec. 27, 2018.

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