When Kevin Huerter was traded to the Sacramento Kings last offseason, it was the beginning of a new chapter in his career. To signify that, he added a headband to his gameday style and adapted to a different role than he had with the Atlanta Hawks.
Spacing was essential to Sacramento’s league-best offense and Huerter put up career-highs in various categories. Even if he was not able to maintain his typical production in the postseason for various reasons, they would not have got there in the first place without him.
De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis were enabled to thrive on the offensive end this season thanks to the handful of high I.Q. shooters that were acquired in Huerter, Keegan Murray, and Malik Monk. Huerter and Murray were two of 14 players leaguewide to attempt six or more threes per game while converting at 40 percent or higher. These aren’t all your typical stand-still spot-ups either, Huerter was lethal coming off of screens and dribble handoffs at full speed, rising up, and knocking them down.
Helping off of Kevin Huerter was unadvisable, to say the least. Shooting the gap when chasing him around would lead to an easy bucket. Huerter would sprint to the corners in transition and leave opponents with the tough choice of slowing down Fox and Sabonis in the open court or conceding an open three to one of the leagues-best shooters.
Inconsistencies did exist this season for the sharpshooter, but both his three-point attempts (6.8) and three-point percentage (40.2 percent) were career highs. In February, he converted just 29.2 percent of his 72 total attempts from beyond the arc but he responded in March by knocking down 51.1 percent of his 94 attempts. While that variance may have been a bit extreme and frustrating at times, Huerter had an objectively great shooting season.
With that conversion rate comes overly aggressive defenses that can be taken advantage of, and Red Velvet was smooth in doing so. Huerter finished with career-highs from two (60.3 percent) and at the rim (72 percent). Playing with one of the best passing bigs in the league certainly helped, but Huerter was smart and consistent with his cuts and relocations.
With Huerter on the floor, Sacramento’s offensive rating was 121.0 and that fell to 113.6 when he went to the bench. While the team’s defense was improved with him resting, the difference in the +4.5 net rating with him on compared to +1.2 with him off is telling. The starting lineup of Fox, Huerter, Murray, Barnes, and Sabonis played more minutes (900) than any other group in the association and thrived thanks to that chemistry.
900 minutes would not be possible without health and availability from the entire group, Huerter included. Participating in all but seven games this season should not be overlooked.
Huerter’s defensive contributions were a bit of a different story. There were often times that opposing teams chose to target him in switches. Sometimes he managed to hold his own by moving his feet and remaining physical without fouling, others times it would be an easy blow-by.
Part of that defense was rebounding. Coach Mike Brown often mentioned impacting the glass as a needed point of improvement from Huerter. He tallied five or more rebounds on 21 occasions this season, but also had 27 showings with two or fewer including seven nights where he failed to grab a single board.
The Maryland product is not known as a defensive difference maker. He just has to survive on that end and follow the principles the coaching staff has in place and his offense provides more than enough.
That’s what made Huerter converting just 20.5 percent of his 5.6 three-point attempts per game in round one of the postseason against Golden State disappointing. The Warriors’ defensive gameplan was apparent from the jump of game one. They were not going to allow Murray and Huerter to get their typical looks from beyond the arc within the flow of the offense.
As a result, Huerter looked uncomfortable and fell into a shooting slump at the worst possible time. Of the 17 “wide-open” threes he attempted in the playoffs, only three were converted. His regular-season average of 15.2 points per game turned into a single series-high 15 point game in this disappointing ending.
Looking back at his two postseason runs with Atlanta causes some slight concern. In his postseason series debut, he shot a stellar 45.5 percent and followed that up with a series against the Philadelphia 76ers where he knocked down 37.1 percent from deep and tallied 27 points in game seven. After that, his three-point percentage in the three most recent series was 26.3 percent, 29.0 percent and 20.5 percent against the Warriors.
Naturally, questions are going to arise about Huerter failing to show up under the bright lights. His showing in the albeit meaningless three-point contest didn’t help quiet those worries. Huerter showed some defensive improvement during these playoffs that should be noted by increasing his physicality which hopefully will carry over into next season.
If teams are focused on taking away Kevin Huerter’s looks in the playoffs, that says more than anything about his importance to Sacramento’s success. Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox should have been able to thrive more as scorers as a result, but Sabonis’s hesitancy in the mid-range and Fox’s finger injury complicated that.
“It was, for the most part, a year I felt pretty good about,” Huerter told media during his exit interview. “Definitely a sour ending, probably for everyone… individually not going how I envisioned it, but it’s motivation moving forwards. In a lot of ways, it’s learning. Seeing how, when we get to this point, teams are gonna guard us and things they’re gonna try to take away and the different areas of my game that I’m gonna have to go to with this group and continue to build…”
While this wasn’t Huerter’s first postseason appearance, it was his first with a royal purple headband. Learning his idealized role on this roster was a process that is still ongoing as Huerter prepares for 2023-24.
When asked what he plans to work on this offseason, Huerter said he wants to “continue to get better in my role. I think that’s gonna be a big focus for me this summer. Being in really good shape going into next year. My movement within our offense, you gotta be in really good shape and this series showed it… there’s not one specific thing I always go into an offseason trying to work on, it’s just trying to build an all-around game.” He briefly mentioned becoming a better scorer inside the three-point line and a more consistent three-point shooter as well.
The conditioning he highlighted was apparent in his back-to-back numbers throughout the course of the regular season as well. On the second night of back-to-backs, Huerter converted just 34.1 percent of his triples. The tirelessly emphasized high-paced offense combined with practicing more than most teams made for a tough schedule, but now he knows what to expect and prepare for.
Part of Huerter’s initial appeal when acquired was the four-year deal that was just beginning. With three years, $50.5-million remaining, his production value at the very least met his salary and often surpassed it. He doesn’t turn 25 until late August, so there is still plenty of improvement and development that could be seen moving forward.
His spacing and gravity off movement were essential to Sacramento’s breakout season in 2022-23 for a multitude of reasons. With that being said, since Barnes’s deal is now expired, Huerter’s contract does become the most obvious salary match if the front office thinks they’ve identified an ideal and available third star.
Kevin Huerter makes the game easier for De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis in the immediate and vice versa. He had a career year while adjusting to his role in the first season with Sacramento and is under contract with room to improve.
His postseason woes should serve as a crucial learning experience moving forward and it’ll be about seeing how he responds. The Sacramento Kings will benefit from having Red Velvet as an option in Golden 1 Center moving forward just as they did in 2022-23.