Rising Kings Eager to Take Next Steps

Team camaraderie and a culture shift culminated in a special season in Sacramento, but Kings players aren’t content with a first-round exit.

Not even 24 hours removed from the end of his first playoff run, De’Aaron Fox, still riding a wave of emotions, pointed to all the positive steps his team took throughout the season and then aspired to resolve unfinished business.

A young group that many pegged to be at least a year away from making any serious postseason noise believed early that they were building something special. Their unity combined with their work over the summer, the grind behind closed doors, when the attention wasn't being paid, is what put them in position to surprise the league and push the defending champions to the limit.

But that taste of the playoffs turned out to be bittersweet, Fox says, making it clear he isn’t satisfied with exiting in the first round and that he’ll use the shortfall as motivation.

“You take that feeling and you build off of that feeling because you don't want to feel that again,” Fox said. “I just feel like that helps you grow as a player, and if you have a lot of like-minded guys in the locker room, that’s what fuels you guys as a team. We’ll just build off of this. We’ll take what we learned throughout the season … You take the hurt that you felt and you become a better team.”

Despite the less-than-happy ending, for Fox, a monumental year had all the elements of a cinematic masterpiece – an underdog story of overcoming the odds, gaining national respect and making history in the process, set to the soundtrack of a rallying call from the crowd and glow of the purple beam illuminating the night sky.

“I think it was almost something out of a movie, just with my life coming together like that,” said Fox, who welcomed his first child, Reign, with his wife Recee. “I definitely think that year 25 for me is probably the best year that I've had in my life. I just want to keep this going. I want to keep this feeling  going.”

The All-Star guard isn’t the only one who wasn’t ready for the closing credits on the most memorable Kings season in recent memory to roll. From Kevin Huerter to Malik Monk to Trey Lyles, players up and down the roster found a home in Sacramento, where they clicked on the court and dined together off of it, united by the larger goal of winning and the sense that this is their time.

“Returning is honestly my number one priority,” Lyles said. “The fellowships, the relationships that I’ve been able to create with these guys have been above and beyond anything that I've had in the past.”

Among the highlights for Huerter was the outpouring of fan support inside Golden 1 Center for the climatic first playoff game, when the crowd reached decibels never heard before by anyone in the organization.

“I think a moment I’ll never forget was Game 1, running out onto the court in this building. That was electric, it really was,” Huerter said. “You’re running on and you’re getting chills running down your spine. There was such a build-up for it. You hear about the drought, you hear about how crazy it’s going to be and everybody talks it up, like Sac fans are going to show out. It really was like [that]. We ran out of the tunnel and it was mobbed. We were on the court and there were 18,000 people standing up ready to go.”

That postseason introduction was only the first chapter, a to-be-continued cliffhanger, and as Sacramento prepares for the highly-anticipated sequel, for the first time in a while, it enters the offseason with more answers than questions.

“I think we put everybody [around the league] on notice,” Monk said. “But for us, I think it just may make us lock in even more because we know what we can accomplish and we know what the playoffs feel like.”

Winning Formula: With its speedy point guard at the controls, the Kings record-setting offense hummed like a well-oiled machine, and with dribble-handoff facilitator in Domantas Sabonis surrounded some of the best outside shooters in the league, there's far less talk about what the Kings could become than about what they already are.

That shift began with Mike Brown, the first unanimous Coach of the Year recipient in league history, who was instrumental in building a winning culture and provided invaluable influence by encouraging players to be themselves.

“As soon as he came here, he said he wants to change the culture,” Monk said. “When me, him and Kev met, he said the same thing to us, and we wanted the same thing. His voice was just so big for us this year and his experience, because he'd been through so many different things in so many different time frames, just helped us a lot.”

Under Brown, players embraced them and put the team’s needs ahead of their own. With a rotation of core players who couldn't be more dependable, Sacramento possesses balance and high-level chemistry honed over months of team workouts and 89 games together. 

“I feel like as the year went on, we got better and we learned each other's tendencies more; what players like and whatnot,” Sabonis said. “To start the year with knowing all that already and adding things in summer is going to be very helpful. And the coaching staff knowing your tendencies, [us] knowing them, it's going to definitely help, especially with summer coming up.”

Rookie Duties: Keegan Murray, the No. 4 pick in the Draft, not only set a league record for most three-pointers made by a rookie in the regular season (206), but was the only first-year player across the league earning significant minutes in the playoffs. 

The level of maturity, poise and confidence he showed in year one impressed many around the league, and in a sign of what’s to come, the Iowa product racked up points from not just behind the arc, but by finishing off cuts, in transition and on drives in the playoffs.

“He's been amazing,” Sabonis said. “Even as the series went on, he got his confidence back and wasn't only shooting threes. He was dribbling and getting into traffic, shooting floaters, mid-range shots, all these tough shots that he hasn't really been doing all year. So that's something you can see and expect for next year, for him to be more active with the ball. That's going to open a lot of things for us.”

Still, Murray wasn’t immune to the required rookie duties bestowed by the veterans, and fulfilled each task without complaint.

“I picked up Chick-Fil-A every away game, so I [spent] $300 every single road trip,” Murray said with a rare smile. “So that I kind of hurt. But they're cool with everything that I did; a bunch of little stuff I had to do. They're good people.”

Next Steps: A glistening 48-34 record, powered by its ability to put points on the board, is more likely Sacramento’s floor rather than its ceiling, but what the regular season indicated and the playoffs amplified is that defense needs to take precedence.

“Everybody has their nights where they're not going to shoot well, but just as a team defense, we need to show more consistency on that end,” Fox said. “You don't want to be one of the bottom five teams in defense throughout a season and then just expect it to turn around in the playoffs … We just need to show defensively that we can be a much better team.”

Both Fox and Sabonis have more defined individual offseason goals, as well, recognizing their own shooting limitations and inconsistencies which contributed to Sacramento’s playoff outster.

“Obviously,  my shooting; I have to have confidence going out and shooting that [mid-range] shot,” Sabonis said. “If [the Warriors] respected my shot more, we probably would have been [playing the way] we did all season instead of the big playing back off me. So that would’ve helped us a lot.”

To withstand the grind of a lengthy season that stretches from October to late April and beyond, and the demands of their turn-on-the-jets offense, conditioning and endurance will be among other areas of priority. 

“To continue to get better in my role, I think that’s going to be a big focus for me this summer: to be in really good shape,” Huerter said. “I think going into next year, my movement within our offense, you have to really be in good shape and this series showed it.”

Coming Soon: Fox and Sabonis played through far more than standard wear and tear over the course of the season, but remarkably missed only 12 regular-season games between them (none in the playoffs).

No. 5 won’t need an operation on his broken index finger and expects the digit will be fully healed within two to three weeks. Sabonis will visit a hand specialist to determine if the avulsion fracture in his right thumb will require rest or surgery, but regardless of the course of action, the big man is already itching to return to the hardwood and to help push his team deeper into the postseason.

“It's never a relaxing summer,” No. 10 said. “I always can’t wait to get back in the gym and start working and preparing.”