As Vlade Divac approaches Wednesday’s opener against the Houston Rockets and his third full season as Kings general manager, he studies his roster and smiles to himself because, finally, these are his players.
The old men. The young men. The tweeners. All of them.
Gone are the disappointing NBA lottery picks he inherited from the previous two regimes – Jimmer Fredette, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore and Nik Stauskas – as is All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins, the massive talent and monster headache who opens the season in a different team’s uniform for the first time since 2010.
Now what? The start-from-scratch Kings are stealing the blueprint from the NBA’s development league, using the season to develop young players and evaluate the roster, all for the purpose of assembling a competitive squad within the next three to four years.
“Because most of our players are young, we have to go back, like to high school and college, and teach,” Divac said Tuesday. “That’s the challenge. But we chose to go down that path and we think it’s the right thing to do.”
With the season opener hours away, Divac gave his thoughts on each of his players:
De’Aaron Fox. “Unbelievable potential. What he can do with the ball, at full speed, I never in my life saw that. His combination of speed and ballhandling is very unique. He is a skinny guy, but a tough kid. Obviously he has to get stronger, wiser and become a leader. But that’s a learning process.”
Buddy Hield. “We are teaching him to play without the ball, because we want to play fast, uptempo. We want him to become a more complete player. What has surprised me is that he is much more active defensively, much more focused. And his work ethic is craziness.”
Justin Jackson. “Justin is more mature because he stayed in college. He knows his game. Drive and finish, make open shots, set up teammates. He doesn’t try to do too much. We need more consistency but it looks like he has the starting (small forward) job.”
Frank Mason III. “Frank is a tough kid, just competitive. When he plays, you don’t see him as a rookie. The other night against Steph Curry, he just went after it. He has no fear. He can drive, get his shot, pass, finish. I just want him to stay healthy. That’s my only concern.”
Malachi Richardson. “The last two games, the last two-three practices, Malachi showed some spark. When he came into camp we were worried about his (hamstring) injury, but he seems fine. And I think he is adjusting because he is going to see more time at three (small forward) than the two (shooting guard).”
Georgios Papagiannis. “Papa, again, is a big guy that needs to learn NBA style and improve his quickness on the offensive end. He can’t put the ball down in the low post and dribble two, three times. Catch the ball and do something, make a quicker move, take one dribble and finish. He has a nice touch and hits shots from the top of the key. Defensively he is learning and he rebounds pretty good.”
Skal Labissiere. “Skal is such a good offensive player. He has that beautiful high shot that is hard to block. It gives him an advantage over defenders. He needs to get stronger because he gets overmatched (defensively). Blake (Griffin) is going right back at you.”
Harry Giles. “I love his heart and his mind. He understands what he means to our program. I told him, ‘We are investing in you for a long time.’ ” (Giles will practice but not be activated until January at the earliest as he rehabilitates his knees.)
Bogdan Bogdanovic. “I have known Bogdan for years. He just knows how to play with the ball, without the ball. Once he figures out NBA style, he will be fine. He is strong and has long arms. What we need from him is to be more aggressive with his shot. He likes to keep everybody involved, make passes, but we need his shooting, his scoring.”
Willie Cauley-Stein. “This is his year. We need him to be a better rebounder, more aggressive. In my mind, he should be a double-double machine, at least 10 points and 12 rebounds every night. He is a rim runner, scores off lobs, get a couple offensive rebounds and it’s right there. He finished strong last season, so we expect him to keep making progress.”
George Hill. “I call George ‘the professor.’ He’s a better player than I thought. He runs the team, knows exactly what Dave (Joerger) wants, helps the young guys, works with De’Aaron. Very lucky to have him.”
Kosta Koufos. “Kosta plays with such effort, and he makes the most of his talent. He is our best rebounder, and those kids have to learn from him. He’s great in the locker room, too.”
Garrett Temple. “Garrett is another great role model for youngsters and from what I have seen this summer, he was working a lot on his shooting.”
Vince Carter. “I never dreamed I would be able to bring him here. At 40 years old, it’s crazy what he can still do. For this team he is everything – a player, a mentor, a coach. Everyone listens to him. He is exactly the piece we needed.”
Zach Randolph. “You know Z-Bo is going to score in low post, hit some turnaround jumpers, and play tough. I love his toughness. That is important for Skal, Willie, Papa to be around someone like him, banging, teaching. You have to be tough to succeed in this league.”