The backup center position hasn’t exactly shined for the Kings this season.
The Kings officially announced the signing of Damian Jones to a 10-day contract today, bringing the roster to 17 once again, including the team’s two-way players.
Jones had an interesting stint with the Los Angeles Lakers recently, providing some vertical spacing for the team. His statistical production was fairly muted, however. In the one game the Lakers played against the Kings, Jones had one rebound, one block, and three fouls in 14 minutes.
Sacramento has a lot of bigs on the roster already, and Jones is now the fourth player who can be exclusively categorized as a center, which begs the question of how the Kings plan to use him. Is there a current need for a backup center on this roster?
This team has basically gone as Richaun Holmes has this season. They’re 16-9 in the games featuring his top 25 game scores of the season (per Basketball Reference), and they’re 6-16 in Holmes’ 22 worst games of the year, plus an additional 0-4 when he doesn’t play. The Kings have their highest net rating when Holmes plays at minus-0.8, the highest of any regular rotation player.
As much credit as Holmes deserves for his own success with his expanding offensive skillset and his activity on the defensive end, much of his statistical prowess is due to the fact that the Kings have a dreadful backup center situation, even though it didn’t appear that way coming into the season.
Hassan Whiteside was the league leader in blocks last year, and a starter for much of the season on a good Portland team. But after a helpful stint on opening night defending Nikola Jokic, especially with Richaun Holmes fouling out, that level of play hasn’t translated for the rest of the season. Whiteside has the very worst net rating among rotation players at minus-11.6.
It’s not entirely his fault. Stylistically, he doesn’t make sense with what the Kings want to do. He’s a more plodding center who plays at a slower pace, and the Kings like to push the tempo, specifically with Tyrese Haliburton in the second unit. Haliburton doesn’t run the floor, and he’s not really a lob threat despite his height. As such, he’s a poor fit with both the reserves and the starters.
Ideally, Marvin Bagley could get some run as the backup center, but he hasn’t been very good at that position. Sacramento ranks in the 1st percentile of NBA defenses when Bagley plays at center, allowing an effective field goal percentage of 60.6 when 54.0 is the league average. The plan this season was for Bagley to play as a small-ball five in matchup-specific situations; alas, that hasn’t materialized.
If Whiteside and Bagley were the only options, especially now that Nemanja Bjelica is in Miami, there would be logic to signing Jones as a more athletic option at center while Bagley is out with an injury. But that Kings still have Chimezie Metu.
Metu’s first extended stretch at backup center in January showed that the third-year big had a ways to go in terms of making a positive impact, as the Kings went 1-4 with Whiteside out. However, there were flashes of help defense and the ability to switch, play in transition, and serve as a lob threat.
When Whiteside went down again last month, Metu showed that he had learned from some of his mistakes. Offensively, he wasn’t getting close enough to the basket back in March, settling for jumpers from the free-throw line. Although he’s still a bit too enamored with the floater — blame Holmes for making it look so easy — Metu has been diving deeper into the paint, which is why he made nearly 68 percent of his field goals in this latest rotation stint. Many of his jumpers came when he was playing at power forward alongside Holmes or Whiteside and thus providing spacing.
Metu’s started to figure out opponent tendencies on defense. He has a better understanding of how to contain drives and when he can help versus when he’ll get burned. His net rating was minus-14.5 in the middle of March, and it has jumped all the way to minus-1.0. Cleaning the Glass, which filters out garbage time, of which Metu plays a lot of, has the center at plus-3.1.
That brings us back to Jones, who had the luxury of playing with LeBron James in Los Angeles, and still wasn’t efficient as Metu was recently. If the Kings are trying to make the play-in now, it’s hard to see how Jones would aid in that goal other than being an emergency center should Holmes have to sit for a game or two like Norvel Pelle was earlier. It might have made more sense to use that final roster spot on a defensive forward, like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, to balance the rotation for the final twenty games.
Perhaps the Sacramento front office has an eye on the future and is scouting Jones for next year’s roster. It’s only a 10-day, so there’s plenty of time to pivot if he turns out not to be what the team is looking for. But at the moment, the Jones fit isn’t obvious on this current roster. The Kings have a perfectly decent backup center, even if he’s not the one who presently holds the job.