How an unlikely contributor helped redefine the Kings’ defensive identity 

Sacramento Kings v Toronto Raptors
Sacramento Kings v Toronto Raptors / Mark Blinch/GettyImages

After years of playing mediocre basketball at best, Sacramento returned to the playoffs. Plagued by injuries and other issues, the West was wide open, and the Kings took advantage of that. They burst onto the scene as a fast-paced offensive squad with plenty of three-point shooters. 

They could outscore almost anyone, and it was enough to challenge the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty to a competitive seven-game first-round playoff series. Over the summer, the front office made few changes, bringing back essentially the same squad, but Coach Brown knew that there had to be some changes. 

Defense became the focus because it is difficult to beat healthy NBA teams if you can’t stop anyone. De’Aaron Fox and Keegan Murray improved a lot on that end of the floor, but it was not enough to change the team’s defensive identity. 

The Kings were still a bad defensive team, allowing one of the highest three-point percentages in the league and giving up too many points in the paint. Until the All-Star break, Sacramento ranked 18th in defensive rating with 116.6. Most teams worse than that were just waiting for the next lottery pick to come to their city. 

Since the All-Star break, that has improved to 12th with a 111.7 rating but the biggest change has come this month. 

The Kings look like a totally different team defensively

In the month of March, the Kings are fourth in defensive rating so far with 108.5. The change isn’t just in the numbers, however. You can see it in the way they play. No one takes possessions off anymore, the guards fight through screens, and players are stepping in to take charges. 

Over ten games, the Kings are 7-3 and have held opponents under 110 points four times already, including three games in which opponents didn't even crack the 100-point mark. This change is coming at just the right time for the final part of the playoff race. 

Keon Ellis has been a real game-changer

The most notable change in Mike Brown’s rotation has been the emergence of Keon Ellis, and his production has helped redefine the Kings’ defensive identity. He has good size, long arms, quick hands, moves his feet well, and navigates screens like a real pro. 

Since the All-Star break, he has been holding opponents to a 34.2 field goal percentage. No guard has hit a better mark. This month, Ellis has played heavy minutes in nine games and recorded a total of 20 steals and 9 blocks. Against the Grizzlies, he became the first Kings guard in the Sacramento era to block 5 shots in a game. He is everywhere on the court, almost making it seem like there are two of him out there. 

Not happy with Kevin Huerter’s production, Mike Brown gave some of his minutes to Ellis this month and now even his starting spot, as Huerter is out with a dislocated shoulder. 

When the season started, no one would have expected every Kings fan, reporter, player, and coach to be talking about Keon Ellis and his role in the team’s playoff pursuit. His impact is undeniable, however, because he brings an element to the rotation the team hasn’t had before. 

Obviously, there are growing pains with such a young player, like his lapse against Jalen Brunson and the Knicks, but his energy and activity just change the way the Kings play. Especially in the starting lineup, his presence changes the entire flow of the game.

First of all, he takes some pressure off De’Aaron Fox and the defensive end and the trio of him, Fox, and Keegan Murray can do some real damage defensively. Secondly, having one less offensive-minded player in that group opens up more shots for Keegan Murray and Harrison Barnes. 

Furthermore, his length and physicality have allowed Mike Brown to experiment with some three-guard lineups that stretch the floor and compete defensively. Davion Mitchell has been playing better offensively lately, allowing Brown to pair him with Ellis at times. 

That is a formidable defensive duo but can only be on the court if both produce offensively. Ellis is shooting over 39 percent from three, and Mitchell has been much more aggressive than earlier in the season. Duarte has also regained his spot in the rotation, fulfilling his 3-and-D duties rather well. 

Improving the defense has been a team effort, but Keon Ellis has been the catalyst. The only two questions are whether the Kings can keep it up long-term and what this means for Kevin Huerter’s future with the team.