The summer is flying by. NBA training camps open in just a few short weeks. Preseason games follow shortly thereafter, with the regular season scheduled to tip off in a little bit more than two months.
All teams undergo their preparations for the season with a lot of questions. That's especially true for a young, inexperienced team like the Sacramento Kings. Will certain players, like DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, build upon the success they've shown in the early part of their careers?
Can players who were slowed by injury last season remain healthy for the duration of the upcoming year? Will guys that showed certain positive trends find ways to continue those trends, or even build upon them? What about those with negative trends in their play; can they turn those around?
Those are the sorts of questions facing the Sacramento Kings this upcoming season, and the answers to those queries will likely make or break the Kings' season.
Here is one burning question facing every Sacramento King for the 2012-13 season.
Question: Can Aaron Brooks return to his 2009-10 form?
Before Brooks left to play in China during last season's lockout, he had been an up-and-down player.
In the 2009-10 season he won the NBA's Most Improved Player award, started all 82 games and averaged 19.6 points and 5.3 assists.
The next season, Brooks suffered an ankle injury in early November, forcing him to miss more than a month of the season. When he returned from the injury, Kyle Lowry had supplanted Brooks as Houston's starting point guard.
Brooks was never really able to return to form. He averaged 11.6 points and 3.8 assists for the Rockets in a reserve role. At the deadline, he was sent to the Phoenix Suns as a backup to Steve Nash. He finished the year in the desert averaging 9.6 points and 4.2 assists for the Suns.
That's the last we've seen of Brooks in the NBA. So, can he return to the same level he displayed in 2009-10?
Sacramento sure hopes he can, and in a lot of respects, it's possible for Brooks to be that type of player again. He's still young at 27 years old, so he should still have the physical tools he displayed in Houston.
Although Brooks wasn't nearly as productive the following year in Houston, it wasn't like he lost his starting job because of poor play. He lost his job because of an injury, and because the Rockets happened to have a more than capable backup in Kyle Lowry.
Now that Brooks has been out of the league for a year, he should have plenty of motivation to come in and re-establish his career. The contract he has with the Kings should provide even more incentive, as Brooks has a one-year deal with an option for a second year.
If he performs up to his capability, he can opt out and cash in during free agency. If he doesn't, he might find himself out of the NBA again.
It's the perfect scenario for Brooks to play well—now he just has to go out and do it.
Can Cousins become an All-Star in 2012-13?
The sky's the limit for DeMarcus Cousins. He's got the size and skills to become one of the premier centers in the NBA. Really, there are only two things stopping that from happening; one is that he plays in Sacramento, while the other is DeMarcus Cousins.
Playing for a small-market team like the Kings is out of Cousins' control at this point. But if he plays well enough, he can get the recognition he deserves, even in a market like Sacramento. Look at the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had two players make the All-Star team last season.
That's not to say Cousins will be as good as Durant or Westbrook; it's just saying that if he plays well enough, the accolades will come. Speaking of which, I doubt Cousins can ever become as respected as Durant, but I see no reason why he can't become as much of an impact-player as Russell Westbrook, which brings me to my next point.
Really, the only thing stopping Cousins from becoming an All-Star is himself. It was obvious from watching Cousins transition from his rookie year into last season that he put in the necessary work during the offseason.
My biggest fear heading into 2011-12 was that Cousins wouldn't put in the work during the lockout and would show up out of shape. But to my surprise, and pleasure, Cousins showed up having shed a lot of his body fat and added the necessary muscle to bang with the big boys in the paint.
It showed in his play. Cousins was a force last season, averaging 18.1 points and 11.0 rebounds, including 4.1 offensive rebounds per game. He was also an all-around player, contributing 1.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.2 blocks per game.
Cousins was a force on the boards, he didn't tire nearly as quickly and he had a much-improved post game.
In order to become an All-Star, Cousins needs to put in the same work this offseason to add to the physical attributes of his game. But he also needs to improve the mental aspect. He needs to quit committing frustration fouls and taking ill-advised shots.
He's got the ability to do it, and he seemed to be a much more focused player under Keith Smart. With Smart returning as head coach, there's no reason why Cousins can't keep improving and end up making the All-Star team.
Can Evans build upon the success he showed as a rookie?
Evans exploded onto the NBA scene like a bomb, as he seemed to destroy anything and everything in his path. He averaged 20.1 points, 5.8 assists and 5.3 rebounds per game.
He also became the fourth player in NBA history to average 20 points, five rebounds and five assists as a rookie. The other three: Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan and LeBron James.
Now that's good company.
However, since that promising rookie season, Evans hasn't done much to improve upon his game. Essentially, he's still the same player he was when the Kings drafted him. Don't get me wrong, that's still a good player to have, but it leaves a lot to be desired considering the promise he showed that first year.
It would seem that Evans has all the physical tools to dominate. He's incredibly quick, he's got excellent ball-handling skills, he's got the strength to finish at the rim, he's a willing passer and he's a solid defender.
The one area of his game that's thoroughly lacking is a consistent jump shot. It's apparent that Evans isn't a great long-range shooter when looking at his career three-point percentage of .255. But it's not just three-point shots, Evans hasn't even been able to knock down mid-range jumpers with any consistency.
Given Evans' ability to penetrate to the basket at will, adding a jump shot is a must if he's to improve upon what he showed as a rookie.
It became apparent when watching him play last season that defenders were daring Evans to shoot jump shots. They would play off him because they knew he couldn't knock down jumpers, and because if they didn't, Evans would blow right by them off the dribble.
He absolutely needs to develop a jump shot to keep defenders honest. Not only will it open up more chances to get the basket, it will also give him another way to score points.
Can Evans build upon the success he showed as a rookie? Yes. All it takes is developing a consistent shot. But since that's something he's been talking about working on since that rookie campaign, it's time to put his money where his mouth is.
Speaking of which, Evans' rookie contract runs out this year. So not only does he have the incentive of improved play by developing a shot, but he's also got the added motivation of playing for his next contract.
Will Fredette develop a consistent mid-range game?
Despite what the statistics may tell us, Fredette has the ability to be a good NBA player.He's got the ability to shoot from long range, indicated by his .361 three-point percentage. He's also got enough quickness, ball-handling and athleticism to take the ball to the basket.
What Fredette really needs to work on is the ability to score from mid-range.
Too many times, Fredette would drive to the basket without knowing what to do with the ball. Then, when he would get there, he would leave his feet without deciding whether he was going to shoot or pass. Basically, he was caught in no-man's land.
He needs to add a mid-range game if he wants to get to the next level. That way he can use his athleticism to get by defenders but isn't pigeonholed into going all the way to the basket.
Marcus Thornton, Fredette's teammate, is a perfect example of this. Thornton will often times take the ball from the top of the key and blow by the first wave of defenders. But as the post defenders collapse on him, Thornton's got the ability to score with mid-range runners and jumpers before defenders can get there to contest the shot. That's what Fredette needs to do.
By adding a mid-range ability to his game, it might also make Fredette more decisive. He'll have more options with the ball, and should have more confidence in his ability to finish.
Plus, it will make defending him more difficult. No longer can you wait for him to get to the basket to defend his shot. Power forwards and centers will have to leave the basket more quickly in anticipation of contesting his runners, and when they do, that leaves the basket vulnerable for Fredette to hit a teammate cutting to the hoop.
It would seem that adding this aspect to his game wouldn't be too difficult to master. Not to mention, he's got one of the best in the business in Marcus Thornton to imitate.
Will Garcia perform with a contract on the line?
All offseason, whenever I'd listen to talk radio in Sacramento, I'd hear fans calling in wondering why the Kings didn't amnesty Garcia. Well, for one, ownership doesn't want to pay a player that's not playing for the team. Secondly, Garcia's in the last year of his contract, with Sacramento holding a team option for 2013-14.
Given Garcia's play last season, and the fact that he's owed $6.4 million in 2013-14, it's highly unlikely the Kings will pick up his option, regardless of what he does this season. So in that respect, he's not really playing to get his option year picked up by the team—he's playing to get a contract for the following season.
Garcia has shown some promise in the past, especially as an on-ball defender and a scoring option from the bench, but he didn't show much of anything in 2012-13. He was relegated to the bench for much of the season, and when he did play, he only averaged 4.8 points and two rebounds.
He also saw his three-point percentage of 38 percent from 2007-08 to 2010-11 plummet to 29 percent last season.
When Garcia is healthy and playing to his capabilities, he's a very good defender and a nice option off the bench. That's something the Kings could really use.
But if he keeps playing like he did last year, not only will Garcia find himself out of a job in Sacramento, he'll likely find himself out of a job in the NBA. Period.
Is Chuck Hayes' shoulder totally healed?
We've seen from his years with the Houston Rockets that despite his 6'6", 240-pound frame, Chuck Hayes is a very capable rebounder and a solid post defender. That's why the Kings brought him in last season, and that's what they expected to get from Hayes.
Only, Hayes dislocated his shoulder on Jan. 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks. The injury forced him to miss the next 11 games (about three weeks worth of action), and Hayes was never the same player after the injury.
The hope is that Hayes got an opportunity to fully rehabilitate his shoulder during the offseason. Because, based on what he did in Houston, a fully healthy Hayes would really help this team.
Considering Sacramento was the worst defensive team in the league last season, both in terms of points allowed per game and opponent field-goal percentage, the Kings could use a player like Hayes to help bolster their defense.
However, the team could also use Hayes' veteran leadership to help bring along the young guys like DeMarcus Cousins and Thomas Robinson. Hayes knows how to train like a professional and he always gives his best effort on the court. That's something that the young guys can learn from.
Hayes can help this team in more ways than one, he just needs to be fully healthy in order to do it.
Will Honeycutt get any meaningful playing time?
Tyler Honeycutt is entering his second NBA season, but in terms of playing experience in the NBA, Honeycutt is essentially a rookie.
In his rookie year, Honeycutt only played in 15 games for the Kings and he played a total of 88 minutes throughout the season. He also had a short stint playing for the Reno Bighorns of the NBA Development League.
From the small sample size we saw from Honeycutt last season, there seems to be some potential there. As you might imagine for a player with so little experience, Honeycutt was raw when he got on the court, but he showed the necessary athleticism to compete in the NBA.
He was a good defender in his limited action. He did a nice job moving his feet and he showed good enough anticipation to block shots and steal the ball. Honeycutt was also a solid rebounder in the limited action that we saw.
His offensive game left something to be desired, but considering how Honeycutt rarely got playing time, it could be a situation of him not getting the necessary reps to improve on his consistency and make adjustments.
That's why, going into this season, it's going to be imperative for Honeycutt to get some consistent playing time if he's to take the next step in his development.
With his skills on the defensive end, and with only one rookie on the team (Thomas Robinson), there should be more room for Honeycutt to get on the court. The problem is that, while Honeycutt can play both the 3 and the 4, he'll be at the back of the depth chart at both spots.
With incumbents Tyreke Evans, John Salmons, Travis Outlaw and Jason Thompson on the team, along with newcomers James Johnson and Thomas Robinson, minutes might be thin for Honeycutt once again.
Can Johnson be a difference-maker on the defensive end?
As was mentioned earlier in the slideshow, the Kings were horrendous on defense last year. In fact, they were the worst defensive team in the NBA.
By acquiring James Johnson from the Toronto Raptors for a second-round pick, the Kings picked up a player who could really help the team improve its biggest deficiency.
Johnson's a valuable commodity because of his ability to play above-average defense at both small forward and power forward. He's got the quickness to stay with the opposition at small forward and his bulky 6'9", 245-pound body gives him the size to bang with power forwards in the paint.
Johnson averaged 1.1 steals and 1.6 blocks per 36 minutes last season, which are undoubtedly positive contributions to a team.
However, he's turnover-prone on the offensive end and tends to take too many ill-advised shots that are outside of the team's flow. That was the problem for the Kings offense last season. Because of this, he'll need to be a difference-maker on defense if he's to make up for what's lacking on the other end of the court.
Can Outlaw find his shooting stroke?
For the first seven years of his career, Outlaw was a productive player, especially on the offensive end. He could consistently knock down jump shots and had enough range to hit three-pointers with regularity. It showed in his shooting percentage as Outlaw posted a field-goal percentage of .441 and a three-point percentage of .363 through the 2009-10 season.
But in the two years since, the wheels have absolutely come off on Outlaw's shooting stroke. Since then, he's sporting a field-goal percentage of .369 and a three-point percentage of .295. Considering that Outlaw doesn't provide much on defense, his lack of shooting efficiency is unacceptable.
If he's to provide any value to this team, he needs to find his shooting stroke again. Otherwise, it will be a mirror image of last season, when he was a "DNP-Coach's Decision" in 27 of the team's games.
Will Robinson follow in the footsteps of teammate, and fellow No. 5 pick, DeMarcus Cousins?
DeMarcus Cousins is showing real signs of becoming a star in this league. Could Thomas Robinson follow in his footsteps?
Robinson certainly has the physical tools to be an impact player in the NBA. He's an excellent rebounder, showed a much-improved post game in his last year at Kansas and has the skills to be a force on the defensive end.
Really, Robinson's productivity will largely hinge on how much playing time he gets. With Jason Thompson coming back on a new four-year deal, and with the improvement that Thompson showed last season, it's hard to envision a scenario where Robinson will begin the season as the starting power forward.
Although, in some respects, that may be to his benefit. It will temper expectations a bit and provide him an opportunity to ease into the NBA game rather than going through a "baptism by fire."
Besides, even with Robinson coming off the bench, there still figures to be plenty of minutes for him. He'll be Thompson's primary backup to start the season, but if Robinson gets acclimated to the NBA quicker than expected, it's likely that his role will increase as the season goes on, especially considering the Kings aren't likely to be playoff contenders.
He's got all of the physical ability to match what Cousins has done. It's just a matter of tapping into that potential and getting the necessary playing time to cultivate his skills.
Can Salmons provide anything worthwhile at all?
I know it's a very blunt question to ask, but given what we saw from Salmons last year, it's a fair one to propose.
His offense took a real hit last season; he couldn't shoot the ball with the same consistency and he didn't get to the free-throw line with the same regularity he showed during the first nine years of his career.
His defense, while still decent, didn't resemble the lock-down capabilities that Salmons showed during his first stint with the Kings from 2006-07 until the trade deadline in 2008-09.
Compounding the issue is that Salmons is highly overpaid. And, unlike Francisco Garcia, he still has two more guaranteed years on his contract worth about $15 million total. I can't imagine another team being willing to trade for Salmons, at least not until he's in the final year of his deal and is an expiring contract.
So, basically, the Kings are stuck with him. It's near impossible to imagine Salmons putting up the type of production that matches the salary he's due, but if he can provide anything at all, it will be an upgrade over what Sacramento got from him a year ago.
Can Thomas build on his surprisingly productive rookie year?
Isaiah Thomas went from being the very last selection in the 2011 NBA draft, to finishing seventh in Rookie of the Year voting.
Although, Thomas probably rightfully deserved to be even higher than that considering he was third among all rookies in win shares, trailing only Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard.
Thomas developed nicely throughout the season and saw a dramatic increase in his play once he was elevated to starting point guard on Feb. 17 against the Detroit Pistons. From that point forward, Thomas averaged 14.8 points, 5.4 assists and only two turnovers per game. He also shot 47.7 percent from the field and 40.6 from three-point range as a starter.
Now, whether or not he'll stay in the starting lineup remains to be seen. The Kings brought in Aaron Brooks this offseason, so there's a chance that Brooks will supplant Thomas in the starting lineup. Even if he does, I can't envision a scenario where Thomas isn't averaging at least 25 minutes per game.
He's one of the best players this team has and he should fill a role accordingly. Because of his small stature (5'9"), Thomas may not have as high a ceiling as some other players, but, as he proved last year, he certainly has a much higher floor.
Thomas has already proven that he'll have a long and prosperous career in the NBA. I expect him to build on last season's success.
Can Thompson show the same efficiency he displayed last year?
Jason Thompson improved his efficiency for the Kings last year and cashed in on a new four-year deal as a result.
While his overall statistics didn't drastically improve, it was Thompson's consistency making shots that had a real uptick. After shooting 49 percent from the field during his first three seasons, Thompson saw his field-goal percentage increase to 53.5 percent in 2011-12.
That will be a key for Thompson and the Kings going forward. With other more reliable options on offense, Thompson isn't going to get too many opportunities to shoot the ball. So, he needs to take advantage of the ones that he does get.
That's what he did last year.
There's no reason why the results can't stick for Thompson, because it wasn't so much an improvement in shooting ability, as it was an improvement in shot selection. He showed a much-improved post game and continued to take high-percentage shots for the duration of the year.
He'll never be a star-caliber player but that's not what the Kings are asking. If he can play some defense, grab some rebounds and make the same percentage of his shots, he'll be a key cog on this team.
Will Thornton remain a reliable option in clutch situations?
Time and time again last season, Marcus Thornton showed that he has ice water running through his veins. Not only did he want to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, he also showed an adept skill in those situations.
In clutch situations (which are defined as fourth quarter or overtime, last five minutes of a game, neither team ahead by more than five points), the team was plus-15 in net points scored with Thornton on the court. Sacramento also posted a 14-8 record in such situations when Thornton was on the court.
On a team devoid of any real go-to guy to run the offense around, it's nice to have a go-to guy with the game on the line. That's what Thornton proved to be.
So while his 18.7 points per game certainly helped the team, it was his ability to perform when it matters most that made him a real difference-maker to the Kings.
Will he continue to do it?
Nobody knows with any certainty what makes a player clutch. I like to think it's largely contingent on confidence and desire, but there are obvious physical capabilities that factor into the equation. The big thing with Thornton is that, even if he misses a game-winning shot in one game, you know he'll want the ball in his hands the very next time the game's on the line.
Now, that doesn't guarantee he'll continue to have the success he displayed in clutch situations last season, but it shows that he has the mentality to succeed in those scenarios—that's the biggest thing.
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