Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox comprise the NBA's most fun, young backcourt
“He’s one of the best scorers in the league, regardless of who you want to compare him to,” exclaimed De’Aaron Fox in front of his locker following the Sacramento Kings' 122-117 win over the New Orleans Pelicans back in December. Looking at some of the shots that Buddy Hield has hit this season, and some of the places on the floor that Hield has hit from, it’s kind of hard to argue against that.
When the Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins on February 20th, 2017 to the Pelicans in exchange for Tyreke Evans, Buddy Hield, Langston Galloway, and a pair of draft picks in the 2017 NBA Draft (which ended up resulting in Justin Jackson, Harry Giles, and Frank Mason III after a draft-day trade with the Portland Trail Blazers), the statement that Kings General manager Vlade Divac and his staff made was clear. A complete culture change was in place for Sactown.
The Sacramento Kings, on the precipice of missing the playoffs for the 11th straight season, knew that the current state of the Kings lacked any concrete direction whatsoever. DeMarcus Cousins, the fifth overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft by the Kings out of the University of Kentucky, had not proven that he could be a franchise centerpiece capable of leading a franchise.
Seven years was enough time to tell that this plan to build around Cousins was one that would never come into fruition, leading Divac to tear down begin from square one; the Cousins trade was just the first step of it.
Coming out of the University of Oklahoma, no one really knew what to expect from Buddy Hield at the next level. Some projected Hield to be the next Kobe Bryant, others believed he would end up being a high-volume role player. There was also some concern that Hield, soon to be 23-years-old, had already hit his ceiling on his potential. Hield ended up being selected with the 6th overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft by the Pelicans but would struggle to end up getting playing time over the coming months.
During his rookie season for the Pelicans, Hield made 37 starts but only averaged 20 minutes per game. Hield also shot just 41% from two-point range and 37% from three-point range on his way to averaging just over eight points per game.
Knowing that adding Cousins to pair with Anthony Davis would give them the most dynamic scoring big man combination in the NBA, the Pelicans traded away Hield as the centerpiece of the DeMarcus Cousins trade just 57 games into Hield’s rookie season.
However, this trade would be a blessing in disguise. Not only did it give Hield a fresh start with a franchise who would be committed to giving him as much playing time as possible, but it gave the Kings a fresh start too; a young, confident, dynamic guard who could be a part of the young core that the Kings were going to attempt to build for their future.
Getting a fresh start in Sacramento is exactly what Hield needed. Despite a small sample size, in the 25 games that Hield played with the Kings throughout the remainder of his rookie season, Hield averaged 15 points per game 48% shooting from the field, including 42.8% from three-point range.
As a member of the Pelicans, Hield had a true shooting percentage of .503, which would generally be the mark of an average player in the NBA. After Hield was traded to Sacramento, his true shooting percentage spiked up to .600, which is the mark of a truly elite and efficient basketball player. As a point of reference, Stephen Curry’s career true shooting percentage is .623!
Now that the Kings had a building block in Buddy Hield, they needed to add more pieces around him. That would start with the 2017 NBA Draft in which the Kings occupied the 5th overall pick. For the Kings, the most important thing was to add a backcourt mate for Hield so that he would not have to occupy primary ball-handling duties and could focus on what he does best, which is scoring a basketball. This led the Kings to select standout Kentucky freshman, De’Aaron Fox.
Fox was the perfect point guard to play next to Hield because of how much of a different type of player he is. While Hield is a high-volume scorer, Fox is virtually anything but. What Fox does so well is using his natural quickness and athleticism to handle and distribute the basketball. While Hield is busy scoring the points, Fox will be the one spreading the ball around and assisting him. This is the vision that Divac and his front office had in mind when they drafted Fox.
Unfortunately, in basketball, a winning culture cannot be developed overnight. It generally takes several years of losing before most rebuilding rosters with a young core even sniff moderate success, and in Sacramento, it is no different.
This is why the Kings went out in free agency before the 2017-2018 NBA season and added veteran players like Zach Randolph, Vince Carter, and George Hill. The Kings wanted to teach their young budding core that the only time losing is not acceptable is when you learn nothing from it. This lesson was taught through many, many tough losses throughout the 2017-2018 season. In fact, there were 58 of those tough lessons taught throughout the season. However, there was, for the first time in a long time, hope for the Sacramento Kings.
Hield continued to show his scoring ability, averaging 13 points per game on 44.6% shooting, including 42.8% from three-point range, and 87% from the free throw line. While Hield did not continue to shoot at an elite true shooting percentage, Hield still had a TS% of .557 which is still the mark of a very good scorer. Hield also had a player efficiency rating of 16.1, which usually translates to be a really good 3rd option on most any team.
Fox meanwhile struggled mightily in his rookie season. During his rookie NBA season, De'Aaron Fox averaged just under 12 points per game on 41% shooting overall; he shot just 30% from three-point range which is pretty atrocious for a guard. Fox also had a TS% of just .478 which is below-average for an NBA player, and a PER of 11.2 which would usually translate to a player who is basically fighting for any minutes in the rotation and would not necessarily play every night.
Fox’s offensive box plus/minus and value over replacement were both negative numbers as well. It was as forgettable an offensive season as any player would want to have in their career. The Kings knew what they signed up for though. The losing and the struggles were all a part of the bigger picture for them to build a consistent contender for a decade.
Heading into the 2018-2019 NBA season, the Kings felt that they finally had a legitimate young core that they could develop. Centered around Fox and Hield were Marvin Bagley III, Willie Cauley-Stein, Bogdan Bogdanović, Harry Giles, and veteran free agency signee, Nemanja Bjelica, who is a sneakily solid role player.
However, a young core only means something if there are wins that come along attached to that, something that both Head Coach Dave Joerger and Divac both know very well. At the very least, the Kings needed to show substantial improvement this season and that started with the young backcourt of Hield and Fox.
This season, Hield has finally made the jump from a good scorer into a borderline elite one. Through 68 games, Hield is averaging a career-high 21.0 points per game on a really solid 46% shooting that includes 43% from three-point range. Hield’s PER has also jumped up to 17.4 which is the sign of a very good 2nd option on an NBA team, as well as a TS% of .589, which is just below that really elite .600 that he had in that 25-game stretch with the Kings in his rookie season.
Despite how much Hield has improved, his development pales in comparison to the leap that De’Aaron Fox has taken this season. Through 67 games, the now 21-year-old Fox has bolstered his scoring to 17.6 points per game on 46% shooting overall including a respectable 37.5% from three-point range.
Fox’s PER has also spiked to 17.8 and his TS% is .549, which is just under an above-average TS% in the NBA. Fox also now shoots 55% on his shots in the paint, up 6% from where he was last season. Fox still does not seem to shoot the ball much from the right side of the floor, which he will need to work on if he wants to become an elite basketball player. However, the improvements to his offensive game have been nothing short of exciting of what his potential could further lead him to accomplish on the offensive side of the floor.
Scoring isn’t the only way that Fox has improved this season. Fox has also seen his assist percentage rise from 24% a season ago to now 32.7% this season. This ranks Fox at 15th in the entire NBA and is 10th among all point guards.
Fox’s free throw rate has also jumped from .245 to .395, meaning he is getting to the free throw line basically on two out of every five shots attempts instead of only one out of every four, which he was doing last season. Fox also seems to have a knack for dare I say “swiping” at the basketball, seeing his steal percentage rise from 1.7 to 2.4, which ranks 15th in the NBA as well.
These improvements made by the young backcourt have begun to translate into direct results for the Sacramento Kings. For the majority of the season, the Kings have been hovering around the .500 mark as well as the 8th seed in the Western Conference playoffs all season.
This prompted Divac to make a flurry of moves at the trade deadline to help his team’s playoff push including acquiring Harrison Barnes from the Dallas Mavericks, Alec Burks from the Cleveland Cavaliers and signing free agent swingman Corey Brewer.
While these moves are all nice additions to bolster their roster, at 33-35 and sitting six games out of eighth place with just 14 games to go, it looks as if the Kings will just narrowly miss the playoffs this season. However, that should not take away at all the vast improvements that the Kings have made in rebuilding their roster these last two years following the DeMarcus Cousins trade and it all starts with their young, terrific, fun backcourt of Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox.