December 16, 2018, 6:01 pm
Injuries are an unfortunate reality in the NBA. Marvin Bagley III, who had been starting to find his rhythm with the Kings, was especially tough to watch gingerly limp to the locker room just a few minutes into Sacramento’s game against the Warriors. Kings fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when the injury was revealed to be a bone bruise without structural damage, but it remains a frustrating roadblock for a young player that appeared to be on a promising path. In the long run Bagley should be no worse for it, but for a young team reliant on contributions from all over their roster, this injury could be consequential, at least in the short-term.
Prior to the season starting, the easy answer would have been to adopt a next man up philosophy, contingent of course on that “next man” still being on their rookie deal, but the team’s 15-13 start makes this a more complex decision. There is still value in finding time for young players to develop, but that can no longer be prioritized over winning games.
For a team looking to balance short-term success with long-term development, there is inevitably going to be a temptation to distribute Bagley’s minutes between some combination of Kosta Koufos, Nemanja Bjelica and Willie Cauley-Stein. This is probably the simplest answer, and it’s almost definitely the least risky, but the best answer is likely continuing to devote his minutes to development.
Harry Giles and Skal Labissiere have been given very little opportunity to show what they can do this season. Giles, who at one point was sent to the team’s G-League affiliate in Stockton, has yet to find a consistent rotation spot since the start of the season. Labissiere has been buried even further and at this point doesn’t even find himself playing at the end of blowouts.
This isn’t likely to change for Labissiere. The Kings weren’t too interested in finding time for him last season, and a less-than-stellar preseason likely put an official end to his time as a rotation big for the Kings. There’s an argument to be made that he should still see time, but that’s probably not coming without a trade or another injury.
Giles is a different story and is actually somewhat likely to see his minutes increase with Bagley out. His mistakes are undoubtedly frustrating, but he has moments of brilliance that show just how much he could help this team. These flashes need to be more consistent, but the answer could be giving him more consistent minutes.
Early in the season, Giles was honestly tough to play, even for a team that didn’t expect to be competing for a playoff spot. The game looked too fast, and Giles, who has been thought to be a transcendent player back before his knee injuries, didn’t appear to be familiar with a role that didn’t feature him. Struggling with that transition can be a normal part of the rookie experience in the NBA, but Giles needed to be further along before he could justify a rotation spot.
Following his one-game stint in Stockton, Giles has shown that he’s ready for that opportunity. Since his return, Giles has put up per-100 possession averages of 28.5 points, 13.9 rebounds, 8.3 assists and 3.5 steals – absolutely remarkable numbers for a rookie. His 10 fouls and -10.4 plus/minus per-100 make those numbers a bit of a mixed bag, but there’s no doubt that he’s had a positive influence for many parts of that 15-game stretch. He isn’t likely to put up numbers like that in a larger role, but he doesn’t need to be anywhere near that productive to be a valuable part of the rotation.
It’s also important to remember that this isn’t a strategy that necessitates commitment. Ideally Giles would be given enough opportunity for the team to definitively assess whether or not he can contribute on a regular basis, but the team can shift gears at any point. There should be at least a 30-minute trial before the team ultimately moves in a different direction, but that 30 minutes of Giles in mid-December isn’t going to make or break the Kings’ playoff chances.
The Kings know what they’re going to get from Cauley-Stein, Bjelica and Koufos at this point. Their numbers may fluctuate on a game-to-game basis, but it’s reasonably easy to predict the range of outcomes for those three on any given night. Giles is different; the team may not be able to use him much this season, but with his natural feel and wide-range of admittedly raw skills, he has the talent to be a valuable rotation player this season, and possibly much more down the road. Taking minutes from Bagley to find out what Giles can do wasn’t a good idea a week ago but finding out in Bagley’s absence now absolutely is.
There is no way to spin this injury as a positive for Sacramento, but truly great team’s make the most of every situation that they’re in. It could end up that distributing these minutes to veterans is the right move, but for a team that’s looking at an uphill battle to stay in playoff contention, betting on Giles is the type of risk/reward move that the Kings need to embrace.