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The Kings Need Bogdan Bogdanovic to Shoot for Stardom

The 2018 Rising Stars Challenge MVP is poised to be a breakout star of the second half of the season because Sacramento doesn’t have much choice but to let him try

Talk to anyone around the Kings about Bogdan Bogdanovic and they’ll all say the same thing: He’s not a typical rookie. The 25-year-old Serbian is a rare bright spot in another lost season in Sacramento. Bogdanovic, the MVP of the Rising Stars Game at All-Star Weekend, was more experienced than everyone else there. Unlike his younger peers, he’s a finished product who knows who he is as a player. He knocks down 3s, moves the ball, and rarely makes mistakes. He fits the profile of an ideal role player, the kind of guy most teams would kill to have. But the Kings aren’t most teams. Their problem is that they don’t need role players. They need stars, and they need to figure out whether Bogdanovic can be one. Most young NBA players need to learn how to play within themselves. Sacramento needs Bogdan to start playing a little recklessly.

Bogdanovic may already be the team’s best player. He started the season on the bench, but he quickly passed Buddy Hield to become Sacramento’s starting shooting guard. His averages in points, minutes, and field goal attempts per game have increased over each of the last four months. Translate his numbers in 36 minutes of playing time and he’s averaging 15.1 points and 4.2 assists a game on 46.4 percent shooting. What separates him from most rookies is his efficiency. He has the best true shooting percentage (57.7) among the players in their rotation, and the third-best assist-to-turnover (2:1) ratio.

“He has been great. He can really shoot the ball. He’s like another point guard on the floor,” said fellow rookie De’Aaron Fox in the locker room before a game in Dallas earlier this month. “He doesn’t play like a rookie. He’s basically a seasoned vet.”

Bogdanovic was a draft-and-stash player, taken by the Suns with the no. 27 pick in 2014. In the next three years, he went from a prospect to one of the best players in Europe. He was the leading scorer for the Euroleague champs Fenerbahce last season. Kings GM Vlade Divac has always loved his countryman’s game, so he jumped at the chance to acquire Bogdanovic when Phoenix wanted to move up from the no. 13 to the no. 8 pick in 2016. Divac called him “the best player in Europe” after the trade, and landing him is one of the few positive moves in Vlade’s front-office tenure in Sacramento. Georgios Papagiannis, the raw Greek big man he took at no. 13, is already out of the league only 18 months later.

Bogdanovic wanted to come over to the NBA right away, but there were some benefits to waiting. His game matured significantly, and the rookie salary scale no longer applied to him. Sacramento signed him to a three-year, $27 million contract for the largest rookie deal (in terms of average annual value) in NBA history. The contract raised eyebrows around the league. No one doubted his skill. The questions were about his athleticism. Bogdanovic has only average speed and quickness for an NBA wing. He needs to use every trick in the book just to get his shot off.

“He has to learn how to play against starting 2-guards in the league that are going to be a little bit bigger, a little bit longer, and maybe a little bit more athletic,” Kings head coach Dave Joerger told reporters in a pregame press conference in Dallas. “He brings a lot of things to the table that other guys don’t have, though, from an IQ standpoint and an ability to pass. I love him. He’s been terrific.”

Bogdanovic has a well-rounded game every coach would love. He’s an elite shooter (shooting 40 percent from 3 on four attempts per game this season) who knows exactly how much space he needs to get his shot off. If defenders press up on him, he can handle the ball and make plays off the dribble. If he can’t create enough separation, he keeps the ball moving. He rarely takes bad shots. Bogdanovic shoots above the league average from every level of the floor. This play against Draymond Green, which gave the Kings the go-ahead basket in the fourth quarter of a win against the Warriors in late November, is a good example of how he’s able to create offense for himself:

Joerger gives Bogdanovic a lot of freedom to make decisions in the offense. He has the size (6-foot-6 and 205 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan) and quick release of a traditional shooting guard, but can also run point, read the defense, and find secondary options on the move. He has a great feel for the pick-and-roll:

“I try to put everyone on the same page. We are toughest to guard when we move the ball a lot and are cutting with some pace to the basket. That’s how a good team does it,” Bogdanovic told me after a 114-109 win against Dallas on February 13, when he had a career-high 17 field goal attempts. “Some games you attack with other guys. Today it was me.”

All coaches want their players to play unselfishly. There are times, though, when making the extra pass can be a bad thing. There aren’t many talented players Bogdanovic can pass to in Sacramento. With DeMarcus Cousins gone, they don’t have anything close to an established star on their roster. Bogdanovic is seventh on the team in usage rate, even though none of the six players ahead of him have a true shooting percentage higher than the league average of 55.7. His efficient style of play is only so valuable on a team with the worst offensive rating in the NBA.

“The pace is a little different here. The players play with a little more freedom. They run the transition offense a little more,” said Bogdanovic. “You shoot the first shot if it’s open. In Europe, they might have a second option which is going to be better. Here, maybe the first one is going to be the best in the offense.”

Bogdanovic embraced that style of play at the Rising Stars Game, in which he finished with 26 points on 9-of-16 shooting in only 22 minutes and went 7-of-13 from 3. It’s obviously hard to take anything away from an exhibition game where absolutely no defense is being played, but the sheer range of his 3-point stroke was pretty intriguing. He was looking to shoot as soon as he got into the game and was pulling up from almost anywhere on the court:

Translating those shots to the regular season wouldn’t be easy. Bogdanovic may not be able to play more aggressively without losing what has made him effective in the first place. Efficiency generally declines as usage increases. The only way he could counteract that effect would be to change the types of shots he is taking. Bogdanovic is no. 89 in the NBA this season in the percentage of his shots (42.8) taken from 3, though that percentage has risen to 47.3 over the past 15 games. Most of the guys ahead of him on the season are shooting specialists, but big-time scorers like James Harden (51.7), Steph Curry (58.2), and Eric Gordon (61.7) are also high on the list. How many 3s could Bogdanovic make if he started chucking them from anywhere?

It’s hard to predict how good a player who relies on those types of shots can be. They don’t necessarily have to be elite athletes to be successful. Trae Young has been a superstar at Oklahoma, but he wasn’t even a top-20 recruit coming out of high school. A huge part of his success has been the opportunity to be a volume shooter with the ball in his hands the entire game. He would still be playing well at Kentucky or Duke, but he wouldn’t be getting Curry comparisons if he were sharing the ball on teams loaded with five-star players. The same principle might apply to Bogdanovic.

To be sure, building an offense around a guy who shoots jumpers off the dribble is difficult. The margin for error is small. He has to regularly make almost impossible shots against locked-in defenders with elite length and athleticism. Having the skill set might be the easier part. Not many guys have the confidence to keep taking bad shots. Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé has spent the last few years fruitlessly trying to find his own version of the Splash Brothers, drafting Nik Stauskas in the lottery and trading Cousins for Hield. The difference between Bogdanovic and those guys is that he can set his teammates up when the defense overloads to stop him.

“[Bogdan] is a good playmaker. He’s a good player. Not only that, he’s a good person. He’s a hard worker,” fellow rookie Frank Mason III told me. “We just do what’s best for the team [when we are in together]. We go with the flow of the game. If he is playing well in the pick-and-roll, we put the ball in his hands.”

Bogdanovic has never needed to carry a team. He’s used to playing with a lot of talent around him. He was the leading scorer for Fenerbahce last season, but he was also playing with four former NBA players (Ekpe Udoh, Luigi Datome, Jan Vesely, and Pero Antic) who all had a big role in the offense. I talked to one international scout who has followed him his entire career who thinks his ceiling is as a fifth starter or a sixth man on a playoff team.

The problem is that the Kings are years away from reaching that point, even in a best-case scenario. They will soon miss the postseason for the 12th consecutive year, which will be the longest active drought in the league should Minnesota hold on to their playoff spot this season. Sacramento has had nine different head coaches in that span, and they have almost nothing to show for all those trips to the lottery. Only two of their players from before this season (Willie Cauley-Stein and Skal Labissiere) are still on their roster. Fox is their best long-term prospect, but he’s a 20-year-old point guard, the toughest position in the NBA to learn, with a questionable jumper. It will take him years to develop. The Kings are still high on Harry Giles, whom they took at no. 20, but he is already shut down for the season and hasn’t been able to stay on the court since he was a junior in high school.

There isn’t much hope on the horizon beyond their first-round pick this season. They don’t have one for next season, thanks to a catastrophic trade with the Sixers in 2015 where they gave up an unprotected future first-rounder to clear salary cap space. All the losing has also made them one of the least desirable free-agent destinations in the league. George Hill signed a three-year and $57 million contract in the offseason, and he forced his way out of town in just a few months after it was clear the Kings couldn’t contend for the playoffs. The only free agents they can attract are unproven players, massive overpays, or older vets like Zach Randolph and Vince Carter looking for a golden parachute.

Ending up on such a bad franchise might be the best thing to happen to Bogdanovic. If he was playing for a better team, he would probably never get the chance to be more than a secondary player. The Kings, on the other hand, are in full-on tank mode. They might as well see exactly what Bogdanovic could do in a featured role. Opportunity is everything in basketball. No one can put up star numbers if they aren’t given star minutes and star touches. These next few months might be the best chance he ever gets to show what he can do.

The odds of Bogdanovic actually being a generational shooter are low. The downside of a polished 25-year-old rookie is that he doesn’t have as much room to grow his game as his younger peers. But the Kings are in such a bad position that they have no reason not to try. Bogdanovic should have the ultimate green light the rest of the season. It’d be a win-win for Sacramento. If he can’t handle the responsibility, the losses that come from giving him the keys to the offense will improve their draft standing. If he can, they may have stumbled into a key part of their future. Bogdanovic can already take as many shots as he wants in the Kings offense. Now they need him to take even more than that.