Hollinger: These Kings are beaming; scouting Blazers’ Shaedon Sharpe, Baylor’s Keyonte George

Early in the season, it’s often helpful to use scoring margin as a proxy for a team’s quality rather than win-loss record. The latter can be swung by a few buzzer-beaters or bad breaks; the former can be swung by a bad blowout against a short-handed opponent but normally is a more enduring sign of quality β€” especially early in the season before injuries and attrition hit hard.

I mean, just look at this year. Entering Monday, the top five teams in scoring margin are pretty much whom you’d expect: Boston, Phoenix and Milwaukee are first, second and fourth, and each has been to the NBA Finals in the last two years. Third-place Cleveland is pushing to join them in the contender class; nobody will be shocked if the Cavs are at least in the conference semis.

And in fifth, there’s Sacramento.

say what?

It’s true. While six teams have a scoring margin between +2 and +4 in the young season, Sacramento’s +3.9 nudges ahead of New Orleans, Dallas, Utah, Philly and Toronto.

The Kings are riding a six-game winning streak right now which, this being the Kings, is their longest since 2005 (!). They lead the NBA in scoring at 121.3 points per game and are second in offensive efficiency. Their 9-6 record would put them in the West’s 4-5 bracket if the season ended today, despite the fact that two different losses came in part due to blown calls in the final seconds.

Best of all, of course, is THE BEAM. This is the best goofy promotion a team has come up with in years, a blue beam shining straight up from Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center all the way into outer space after Kings victories, theoretically with a press of a button next to the scorer’s table.

It’s taken hold to the point that fans were chanting β€œLight the Beam” at the end of Sunday’s cathartic win over Marvin Bagley’s Detroit Pistons. Kings players added their own twist to that saying.

Of course, the Kings’ success thus far goes deeper than a blue beacon. Basically it comes down to the fact that you might score on the them, but they’ll score more on you. The Kings are just 27th in defense β€” bleck! β€” but the offense is so good it hasn’t mattered.

De’Aaron Fox has realized he can’t bench press the ball into the basket and dropped some of the excess muscle he carried into last season. Instead, he’s taken his shooting to another level, especially from midrange. Fox is shooting 62.6 percent inside the arc, an absurdly good figure for a small guard, while his historically shaky 3-point shot is up to 38.2 percent this year. Defense hasn’t been the Kings’ calling card, but Fox has also shown considerably more effort on that end than he did a year ago. We’ll see if the shooting is sustainable, but thus far, Fox has played like an All-Star.

He’s had help. There is just too much shooting and scoring on the court for opponents to handle everyone. The Kings’ starting five (Fox, Kevin Huerter, Harrison Barnes, Keegan Murray and Domantas Sabonis) is blitzing opponents by an amazing 21.8 points per 100 possessions. Units in which Malik Monk replaces rookie Murray with that group are scoring a ridiculous 142.8 points per 100. Four of the five starters have true-shooting marks above 60 percent, and sixth man Monk is at 59.7.

In the middle, Sabonis has been the same highly effective pick-and-roll partner and high-post fulcrum he was in Indiana; while he won’t protect the rim, he’s at least contributed to the one thing Sacramento does well defensively by rebounding 31.8 percent of opponent misses. (The Kings are second in defensive rebound rate; their problem is inducing a miss.) We won’t belabor what Tyrese Haliburton is doing in Indiana, but fit-wise, the Fox-Sabonis tandem is working. With so much shooting around them, Sacramento is shooting a league-best 59.8 percent on 2s.

The offseason trade for Headband Huerter, meanwhile, has been a total steal. He’s shooting 49.5 percent from 3 while launching more frequently than he did in Atlanta. The only downside is that the Kings might end up being good enough that the 2024 protected first they gave up for Huerter actually becomes a real first.

Overall, this is the best the Kings have felt about themselves since they had a 24-point lead in the third quarter in Memphis on Nov. 13, 2014 (Sorry). I mentioned that because, this being the Kings, the fear of some calamity happening is never far from the surface. There’s always the lingering fear that they’ll do something rash and ridiculous to screw this up. That 2014-15 Kings team, for instance, also began the year 9-6. Within two weeks, they had fired Michael Malone en route to a 29-win season.

There are reasons to question whether the Kings can keep this up. Health, always the secret elixir for surprise teams, has been pretty massively in their favor so far, but if multiple starters are out and they have to lean on the bench, it could yield some ugly surprises. While Monk and Terence Davis have been on 3-point heaters, the wobbly play from Richaun Holmes has left the frontcourt in more disarray.

That said, one can make arguments that the Kings might actually be better than their record. They’re 29th in 3-point defense, but a lot of that is make-or-miss noise. Sacramento gives up fewer opponent 3-point attempts than any team in the league, and it’s not as if a crazy portion of them have been from the corners. And the offense could get to another level if their two starting forwards get going β€” Barnes is aimed at 26.5 percent from 3, and Murray has yet to draw a foul. (OK, he has 14 free-throw attempts. But still.)

The schedule also gets tougher, immediately. The next six opponents have winning records, and 10 of the next 13 games are on the road. We’re going to find out in short order how well the Kings’ revived mojo travels.

But for now, let’s celebrate the Beam Team. Sacramento has had precious few things to celebrate over the last 16 years of The Great Drought. It’s too early β€” and the West is too competitive β€” to say if this team will end the franchise’s embarrassing string of playoff absences. It’s not too early to say they have a real chance, and that, at the very least, is a reason for the excitement Kings fans haven’t had in a decade and a half.

go-deeper

GO DEEPER

Scenes from Sacramento: The ‘Beam Team’ is lighting it up, but their defense is still in the dark

Rookie of the Week: Shaedon Sharpe, SG, Portland

(Note: This section won’t necessarily profile the best rookie of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)

The mystery meat of the 2022 NBA Draft, the Trail Blazers selected Shaedon Sharpe seventh despite him not playing one minute in his lone season at Kentucky. His first 15 games have shown why the Blazers made that leap of faith, as Sharpe has been able to credibly fill a rotation spot. Already, he has nine double-figure games, including 20 against Brooklyn on Friday, and several highlight dunks.

At the moment, Sharpe offers two clear plus weapons: a sweet shooting stroke and superior leaping ability. Sharpe has made 47.2 percent of his 3s from him thus far, and while that figure surely will regress, the eye test says his shooting stroke from him with his feet set is the real deal.

If anything, he should be launching a lot more often than he does. Sharpe has only tried 5.9 3s per 100 possessions, barely a third of his field goal attempts by him. Sometimes he seems unready to shoot when he catches the ball, like here when he passes up an open 3 and instead bails himself out by making a more difficult stepback.

Sharpe’s profile also includes the ability to attack in straight lines and finish at the rim with his leaping ability. Watch here, for instance, as he grabs a rebound, pushes it up court and uses a screen and a hesitation move to glide through the paint and smoothly finish at the at the cup:

Sharpe’s upside is clear, but for now, some weaknesses limit his utility. His motor can weirdly shut off a times, and he’ll seem content to float around off the ball for long stretches. That’s a shame because he could do so much damage as a cutter, flying in for alley-oops (or more conventional finishes) with his hops.

As a ballhandler, Sharpe’s game is limited by severe tunnel vision. Right now, he’s just a play finisher, not a play starter; amazingly, he has just six assists the entire season. To really capitalize on his abilities, Sharpe will have to advance his capabilities off the bounce and figure out what the other four players on the court are for. His 0.9 assists per 100 possessions is second-to-last in the NBA, ranking only ahead of Detroit rookie big man Jalen Duren, and mind-blowing for a guard.

Here, for instance, is a clip that amalgamates some of the work Sharpe has left to do: He’s unready to shoot despite being wide open and drives into three players and throws up a heavily contested shot instead of hitting an open Jusuf NurkiΔ‡.

With all that said, Sharpe’s ceiling is really high β€” he’s only 19, remember β€” and his shooting gives him a finite floor. He’s already useful enough to deserve the minutes he’s getting. The question is whether he can develop his engine and feel enough to become more of a primary offensive option.

Prospect of the Week: Keyonte George, 6-4, Fr., SG, Baylor

(Note: This section won’t necessarily profile the best prospect of the week. Just the one I’ve been watching.)

Sometimes you watch a player and just think, β€œI’m not sure yet, but I’m interested.” That’s particularly true for one-and-done candidates like Keyonte George, the Baylor freshman who is averaging 14.4 points and 5.0 assists thus far. Our Sam Vecenie had him projected to go sixth in his most recent mock draft.

George isn’t some Wembanyama-ish sure thing, but he’s interesting. Let’s start with the bad news and then work up from there: George is 6-foot-4, not a freak athlete and not a point guard. That’s a tough needle for a potential lottery pick to thread; the scoring and feel need to be outstanding to offset it. His pathway to success has footprints β€” think Bradley Beal or CJ McCollum β€” but it’s a narrow lane.

Watching George play in high-profile games against Virginia and UCLA this weekend, you can see why he might be able to break through anyway. He has a clear instinct for scoring, especially shooting pull-ups, and his 3-point shot looks good enough to be a reliable threat at the next level. We’ll get more data on that as the season goes on, but through five games, he’s made 12 of 37 from 3 and 12 of 15 from the line.

However, what stands out is that George doesn’t just have his head down looking for buckets; he uncorked several plus passes in the two games over the weekend. The fact that he’s averaging five assists a game while playing off the ball is a strongly positive indicator. George also showed enough on the defensive end to suggest he might hold his own there against pro twos, although I doubt this will ever be some huge strength of his. And on the flip side, he’s also had some bad turnovers and struggled to get all the way to the cup on his own steam.

This type of mixed bag is hardly atypical for a freshman one-and-done playing his first college games, and it’s far too early for me to bang the gavel with some kind of final proclamation on his outlook. One of the biggest parts of the evaluation will be seeing how he progresses as the season wears on and whether the trends we’ve seen in this small sample of games continue.

Nonetheless, he’s marked himself as a player to watch: highly touted coming in and producing at a fairly high level for a good team. Given the ferocity of Baylor’s schedule β€” the Bears play Gonzaga in two weeks and have the usual ferocious slate of Big 12 games β€” we’ll have plenty more evaluation opportunities.


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GO DEEPER

NBA Power Rankings: A new No. 1; Clippers laughed; and let’s give some thanks

(Top photo of Malik Monk: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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