By Morris Phillips
SACRAMENTO–Skal Labissiere, an NBA rookie, raw and unrefined as any, but improving, shows his growth and limitations in spurts, sometimes alternating from one trip to the offensive end of the floor to the next.
Both promising and maddening, his trials mirror the growth of the young Sacramento Kings, now in full rebuild minus DeMarcus Cousins, along with Coach Dave Joerger’s declaration that his remaining veterans will take a back seat to the youngsters in the season’s final eight games.
In the third quarter Wednesday night, with the Kings concluding their 17-minute, mid-game push for respectability after falling behind by 20 to Utah in the first quarter, Labissiere was on display for three straight offensive trips.
First, Labissiere drove from the top of the key and seamlessly dropped his jump hook in the lane, and after Boris Diaw’s answer three, the Kings’ rookie spun baseline and missed a jump hook, a lower percentage play than him turning or driving middle, then the third time Labissiere drove again, deftly shuttling the ball to Willie Cauley-Stein, who was fouled at the rim.
Some good, some bad. The Kings started Labissiere’s display down seven. It finished, the Kings were down eight.
“Every game, like I said before, is a learning experience,” he said.
Coach Dave Joerger says he wants to see his team’s basketball I.Q. soar. But it’s a process, practice, film and games all factor in, and time, if not patience, is short. Sensing blood, Utah pounced, shooting 63 percent after halftime.
“Their size at the wing and their experience–they just moved us around places,” Joerger said. “Like I said, it was a good learning experience for our younger guys. In the middle of five games in seven nights, you just try to pick yourself up and on to the next one.”
Joerger knows, having coached playoff-caliber Memphis, this isn’t what it supposed to look like. With Cauley-Stein and Labissiere on the floor extensively, one or both have to get to shooters out to the three-point line, and the Jazz exploited the inexperience with five threes in the first quarter, and 13 for the game. The nuanced nature of NBA pick and rolls put the Kentucky pair and mountain man Georgios Papagiannis, who played 20 minutes, in tough spots away from the rim which led to baskets in a pair of big runs that ballooned the Utah lead.
Papagiannis had a pair of smooth jump hooks. The Greek center also left his feet defensively on the baseline away from the basket, and instantly turned Jeff Withey into a swooping dunk artist on par with Tom Chambers.
Ben McLemore came up with 17 points in the Kings’ resurgent second quarter, the highest scoring quarter of his pro career. But with the Kings trying to cut the deficit to single digits that same period, McLemore was stripped by Rodney Hood igniting a Jazz fastbreak.
The Kings made just two threes, intensifying the disparity between the clubs from distance. The two makes was a season low; Buddy Hield missed all three of his attempts from three, McLemore was 1 of 4.
The Kings knew rebounding would be key against the physical Jazz, but perhaps not this aspect: the Kings managed just two offensive rebounds and often weren’t in position for second chance opportunities when shots were released.
Those finer points come with time and repetition, building blocks that don’t currently favor rebuilding Sacramento.
“By and large we just dribbled the bajeebers out of the basketball for most of the game so it’s hard to find guys who are open when we’re just constantly dribbling it,” Joerger admitted.
The Kings followed consecutive one-point wins over the Grizzlies and Clippers with the 112-82 loss to Utah. The Kings never led, but after trailing 34-14 after one quarter, sliced Utah’s lead to two, twice in the third. The Jazz responded by scoring 27 of the next 38 points.
Utah remained a game-and-a-half ahead of the Clippers in the race for the fourth spot in the Western Conference and home court in the first round of the playoffs.