After "uncomfortable" preseason, Kevin Huerter, Chris Duarte competition still undecided?
Mike Brown still has major decision to make with starting lineup
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It was supposed to be drama free. Running it back was supposed to mean something different. But for the 2023-24 Sacramento Kings to improve and take another step, head coach Mike Brown decided to make things uncomfortable during training camp and the preseason schedule.
“Uncomfortable” is Brown’s word in this situation, not ours. In all honesty, it is a perfect term for what we have all experienced.
Drama can be a good thing. The battle for the starting shooting guard position was an unexpected detour in what could have been a very mundane camp. Four days before the start of the regular season, we still don’t have a definitive answer on who will suit up alongside De’Aaron Fox in the backcourt as the opening night shooting guard.
The incumbent is Kevin Huerter, a 25-year-old sharpshooter who started 75 games for the Kings last season. The challenger is Chris Duarte, a 26-year-old Swiss army knife who plays with an edge.
Now that we have reached the end of the build up to the season, Brown has a few days to put all the pieces back together, name a starter and galvanize the team. His “all in” mantra likely won’t be tested this early in the year, but his ability to give clarity on roles and build the confidence of his players heading into an important year is crucial.
How did we get here?
It all started a little over a week ago when Huerter was seen at practice wearing a gray jersey (typically reserved for the second unit) during Friday’s practice session. When media was let in last Saturday, Huerter was once again sporting gray, with Duarte wearing the black jersey that the starters wear.
When Brown was asked about the switch during his media session, he announced that Duarte would start against the Warriors in the team’s third preseason game, a matchup at Golden 1 Center against the Golden State Warriors.
“Duarte will start tomorrow in Kevin’s spot,” Brown said. “It’s normal, for me at least, trying to experiment, take a different look at different guys and different lineups.”
An NBA head coach needs to be a master chemist during the weeks leading up to the season. Testing different mixtures of players is commonplace, although this specific situation felt more pointed.
During Brown’s media session on Tuesday, Oct. 14, he was asked specifically about what he needs to see out of Huerter for him to remain the starter.
“Not just Kevin, but everybody,” Brown responded. “One of the things that we really are emphasizing is our physicality. When you come across and help out with our help defense, you have to take a hit in the chest, which means you have to go vertical or you have to take a charge. On the ball, in pick-and-roll situations, you have to get up into that ball and you have to get over that screen at the same time.”
Mike Brown explains the idea behind starting Chris Duarte over Kevin Huerter in Sunday’s preseason game against the Warriors.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 14, 2023
Brown was quick to point out that Huerter isn’t the only player who needs to make adjustments in these situations. He was also clear that no one, outside of the team’s two All-NBA players, are guaranteed a starting role moving forward.
“It’s always up for debate,” Brown said. “I think the two guys that will start for sure are Fox and Domas. But I think as a head coach, it’s my job to put the best five out on the floor at any given time. To have that flexibility is something you always want to be able to have. You don’t want to put yourself in a box.”
Brown was also clear that this is part of who the Kings are. After a breakout season, they are looking for more. Improving on an offense that finished last season with the highest rating in NBA history is difficult. Improving the league’s 24th rated defense is likely the path to more wins this season.
With eight rotational players from last season’s squad returning, Brown has to make some changes to the defensive scheme to help his squad, but he also needs more from the group of individuals that see the bulk of the minutes. Physicality is the theme of camp and Brown needs this group to figure out how to have more presence on the defensive end, without fouling.
Brown was clear that he not only had a conversation with Huerter before making the switch, but he talked to the entire squad about the issue of physicality and what the coaching staff believes is the path to improvement.
Let’s get uncomfortable
The game didn’t go as planned. Duarte came up lame and played just 12 minutes. We’ll get into that in a minute. Huerter picked up the extra time, finishing with eight points in 20 minutes of play.
After answering questions about Duarte’s injury, Brown was asked specifically about Huerter’s defensive efforts during post game.
“Defensively, I thought he tried to play physical,” Brown said of Huerter’s effort. “He ended up with three quick fouls. I don’t think his fouls were reaching. I thought he was trying to body Klay [Thompson] and/or whoever else was out on the floor. Again, we just need him to sit down, guard and be physical, just like everybody else, and try to do it while showing your hands.”
Following the conversation at the podium with Brown, Huerter addressed the media from the locker room following the loss. The word “uncomfortable” was on full display, although that was to be expected.
“He just told me that he’s going to give Chris a chance to practice with the starters this week and start in this game and kind of re-evaluate from there, so I’ll just see what the plan is moving forward.”
Huerter was clear that he is still finding his rhythm on both sides of the ball during preseason. He was also asked directly about his feelings about the change.
“Got to be a pro, and like I said, I don’t know what the plan is moving forward either way,” Huerter said.
Kevin Huerter stood in and answered questions about playing with the second team and his conversations so far with Mike Brown about his role.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 16, 2023
The video of Huerter’s comments seemed to strike a chord on social media. Viewers have read plenty into his demeanor, but it should be noted that this is an awkward situation for any player and Huerter standing in to field questions in a game where he was basically replaced speaks to his character.
Still coming out of the days of covid, it isn’t difficult for a player to leave before the media enters the locker room. He not only stuck around, but he was forthcoming with his answers, even if it was in a strained manner.
This is all new territory for Huerter. He’s started 291 of his 349 games as a pro, including 75 starts last season in a Kings uniform. There is also the glaring issue that Huerter was one of eight or nine players who were involved with the main rotation last season. He may not have been the solution to the team’s defensive woes, but he also wasn’t the only problem.
A wrench thrown in the works
The Duarte experiment lasted just twelve minutes in the Warriors game before he was forced to go to the locker room with a knee injury.
The team sent the former Pacer directly to the MRI room during the game and already had test results during post game. Duarte was diagnosed with a small bone bruise in his left knee. He missed the final two preseason games, but according to a league source, “he is trending in the right direction.”
After missing major time last season with injuries while playing with the Pacers, Duarte not only needs to get comfortable with the Kings’ schemes, but he also just needs time on the court to find a rhythm.
“It’s unfortunate from the standpoint that he needs reps, whether he’s starting or not starting,” Brown said following the loss to the Warriors.
According to Brown, the decision had already been made that Huerter would return to the starting lineup on Wednesday in a second meeting with the Warriors. Duarte was scheduled to finish off the preseason with a start against the Utah Jazz, although that didn’t happen due to injury.
Huerter started both games. He is still searching for one of those signature Huerter games when he gets hot from the perimeter, but he’s putting more effort on the defensive end and trying to improve.
Where are we now?
Earlier this week, Brown took the time to discuss the Huerter and Duarte situation with the media. Specifically, we asked Brown whether this was an experiment during the preseason or a tangible option once regular season games begin next week.
“There is reasoning behind everything that we do,” Brown said. “Even starting Sasha [Vezenkov] against the Lakers. There is reasoning behind it and it’s real and we feel like we have more depth this year than we did last year. So we want to give different combinations looks at different times. There is a realness behind it, but there has been a realness behind everything we’ve done so far.”
Mike Brown dove deep into the Chris Duarte/Kevin Huerter situation. The plan was for Huerter to start on Wednesday. That decision is easier to make with Duarte out for the next two games.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 17, 2023
Brown’s goal for this season is for his team to compete for a championship. He knows that in order to get there, he may not even have the entire roster in place needed to achieve that goal on day one of the season.
For now, Brown needs to get the most out of every individual on the roster and push his team to new heights, even if that means making a few people very uncomfortable.
“Every time you have change, there is that aspect of being uncomfortable, and thinking that, hey, we had quote, unquote success, we made the playoffs, everything should be status quo,” Brown said. “Any time you make a change or you do something new or different, like I’m saying, it can kinda make people a little uneasy and that’s part of something that we have to be able to look each other in the eye and deal with it like grownups.”
It should be noted that Brown still isn’t ready to commit on the record to a starting lineup for opening night or even a full-time starting five that can be expected game in and game out. He may have already come to that decision and even relayed that message to his team, but he isn’t willing to make that announcement just yet.
Following the Kings’ final preseason game on Thursday, a 116-113 win over the Utah Jazz, Huerter once again made an appearance in the locker room and stood in for questions. Huerter is still searching for his range from the perimeter and didn’t have the type of signature game he’s been searching for.
“We want to get better, we want to get better,” Huerter said. “We talk about last season, how great it was, until a first round exit. So you’ve got to find ways to get better. We were the number one offense in the league last year and we can still get better on that end of the court, but we can’t be a bottom 20 defensive team and I think everyone in the locker room knows that, so you’ve got to buy in.”
Kevin Huerter from the locker room last night. Despite the rough shooting game, Huerter is confident his 3-pointers will start falling.
— James Ham (@James_HamNBA)
Oct 20, 2023
You can see that Huerter has had time to process what is happening and is in a better mental space. Whether it’s as a starter or coming off the bench, the Kings need the sixth-year pro if they hope to continue their surge forward in a talented Western Conference.
It should be noted that Huerter was the Kings’ third leading scorer last season at 15.2 per game. He also averaged 2.9 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 29.4 minutes per game and he knocked down 40.2 percent from long range on 6.8 attempts per game. His ability to space the floor was a huge reason the Kings were such a dynamic offense.
The path forward
This is where everything gets dicey. Duarte, who has impressed with his defensive prowess and well rounded skill set, is one of the few Kings players who comes in with a questionable injury history.
Duarte played 55 games as a rookie and was limited to just 43 last season while dealing with an ankle issue. He was back on the court getting up shots on Saturday, according to a league source, but his availability for opening night is still unknown at this time.
Huerter is healthy and ready to fill a role, even if he’s struggled throughout the preseason to find his 3-point shot and he’s still trying to make the necessary defensive adjustments.
Brown may or may not have a major decision to make, depending on Duarte’s availability, but this situation likely isn’t over. The Kings’ coach understands that the path to improvement for this team is on the defensive end. He is a defensive coach and if he has to make a trade off, he will likely side with the player who gives him a shot at stopping the opposing team over an offensive weapon.
Huerter can make this decision more difficult by making strides defensively. Duarte can help himself by proving he is healthy enough to stay on the floor. If both figure out these issues, Brown’s job becomes a lot more complicated with the season set to tip off on Wednesday in Utah.
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