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The Sacramento Draft Kings

Vlade Divac picked a group of players for what they could do on and, crucially, off the floor — guys like De’Aaron Fox and Justin Jackson. For the first time in a long time, Sacramento is building its team the right way, and things are finally looking up.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

“Winning begins with culture and character matters,” Kings general manager Vlade Divac said after Sacramento dealt DeMarcus Cousins at last season’s trade deadline. “With the upcoming draft class set to be one of the strongest in the decade, this trade will allow us to build the depth needed for a talented and developing roster moving forward.” That was four months ago, at a time when Kings fans felt like they were at rock bottom. But after the draft? Say it with me, Kings fans: Vlade was right.

The Kings began their draft night by adding point guard De’Aaron Fox with the fifth pick, then they traded the no. 10 pick for picks 15 and 20, where they selected North Carolina forward Justin Jackson and Duke center Harry Giles. In the second round, they added Kansas point guard Frank Mason. Divac’s comments signaled that the Kings were intent on changing the franchise’s personality. They did so by targeting high-character players from upper-echelon programs with excellent intangibles.

Ever since Vivek Ranadive purchased the team in 2013, the Kings have been marred by leaks, front-office upheaval, coaches sniping at players and executives, a franchise player who often lashed out at his bosses and teammates, and blown lottery picks with nary a unicorn in sight.

The Kings haven’t made the playoffs since 2006, when Mike Bibby was the point guard, George W. Bush was still president, and the first iPhone had yet to be released. The Kings have been through a lot since then: the end of the Maloof brothers, a near exit from Sacramento, a new arena, and the beginning of the often-rocky Vivek era. Since Rick Adelman left the bench in ’06, they’ve had nine head coaches. They’ve often picked toward the top of the draft, but the only player to come from all those picks who they could build anything with was Cousins, who they dealt in February to New Orleans after seasons of mutual discontent between the team and player. The Boogie trade allowed them a franchise reset and brought in the kind of assets every growing team needs.

Fox makes sense for the Kings for basketball reasons. His arrival marks stability in a position of weakness for the franchise. Aside from a brief, up-and-down romance with Isaiah Thomas, the Kings haven’t had a point guard to run the team since Bibby. Fox is an elite prospect due to his feisty defense, silky handle, and IQ. He can stop and start quickly, changing tempos to manipulate defenders however he pleases. He’s only 19, advanced beyond his years as a point guard. Plus, he can do stuff like this:

Fox isn’t quite the leaper that former Wildcat John Wall was, but he’s just about as quick dribbling in a straight line or changing directions. Watch him put Lonzo Ball through the spin cycle:

The highlights are fun. Fox is going to create endless open shots for Buddy Hield. Divac suggested he would’ve drafted Fox with the first pick, but he wasn’t just talking about Fox’s skill set, he was talking Fox himself. Fox and Hield are talented young players on the court, but besides that, they bust their asses in the gym, aspire to be as great as they can be, and play the game with enthusiasm. Player psychology matters, and the Kings are finally taking that aspect of team building seriously.

Divac could’ve and should’ve gotten more for Boogie the night he was dealt, but in the end, the Kings will have a Hield-Fox backcourt with a ton of potential, one that could shine on the court and in the locker room. A lot sure has changed since Cousins tweeted this last draft night:

Cousins claimed he was in a “hot sculpting class” when asked why he wrote the message, but it sure seems more likely that it was an expression of frustration toward the organization screwing up again, by trading down and drafting a random Greek dude who played Boogie’s position.

Look down the line at Sacramento’s decisions in this draft. It all starts with Fox; then the team selected Jackson at no. 15 after trading down. Jackson isn’t a prospect that I’m a fan of. He’s just OK. But at 22, he’s mature and it shows on the court. He communicates on defense, plays and works hard, and understands his role on the team. Jackson plays winning basketball. Love, like, or hate him as a prospect, from a process standpoint, he makes a lot of sense for the Kings.

Then there’s Giles. It’s the second year in a row the Kings have drafted an elite high school prospect who went to college and saw his stock plummet. Skal Labissiere was the no. 2-ranked player behind Ben Simmons, per RSCI, then slipped in the draft to the Kings at no. 28 after stinking as a freshman. Josh Jackson led last year’s RSCI rankings, and Giles was second. But Giles fell to no. 20 due to his injury history. He tore his left ACL, MCL, and meniscus in 2013, tore his right ACL in 2015, and then suffered a setback that required surgery last October. There’s a chance Giles is Mr. Glass.

Giles appeared to lose some lateral agility and leaping explosiveness as a Duke freshman, but at lower levels he flashed an elite knack for defending the perimeter by sliding his feet and using his long arms to alter shots and destroy passing angles. When you factor in that Giles is an elite rebounder, the appeal is obvious. Offensively, he projects more as a complementary player who excels in the screen game, but it’s his ability to defend and rebound that gives him such high upside. “I’m so excited that he was there for us at the 20,” Divac said. “That kind of talent you can’t pass.”

Labissiere and Giles didn’t see their talent disappear after one tough year. But circumstances prevented them from reaching their upside in college, and they’re trying to change that. That’s the focus in Sacramento, really. It’s true: The picks could all go wrong. Maybe Fox will never develop his jump shot and he’ll turn into another Elfrid Payton — great hair and not much else. Jackson might be just another guy who is replaceable by a league-average player. Giles might keep getting hurt. Mason could go down as a forgotten second-rounder. Risk is attached to every draft pick, and none of these players are perfect. But if we had a laugh at the Kings’ expense over the past few years, it’s only right to give them credit where it’s due. “I’m very excited about the talent that we brought here tonight. They’re going to just be an addition to what we’re trying to build here in the second half of the season,” Divac said. “I want to see that continue: play together, play uptempo, play hard, and have fun.”