The architect of the Kings’ historic NBA offense

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Reading article after article, Kevin Huerter wrinkled his brow. It didn’t matter the website or publication. It didn’t matter the author or even the subject during his Hawks tenure. Huerter kept seeing the same pictures from his rookie year with Atlanta. So this season, his first as a member of the Sacramento Kings, the 24-year-old amended his on-court appearance. Something sentimental and purposeful for a new chapter in new colors. Now when you Google the man who’s pouring 3s inside Golden 1 Center, a thick headband floods the image results.

“It’s a timestamp. It’s like Carmelo [Anthony] with his cornrows or LeBron [James] with his headband,” Huerter told Yahoo Sports. “Different players throughout their careers just rock something different for a little bit, and that’s how you know where they were.”

There have been plenty of moments in Sacramento worthy of snapshots. That’s what happens when a team is steamrolling its way to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference. The Kings are aiming to host a first-round series and end a 16-year postseason drought — the longest absence from the playoffs in NBA history. This is the Kings’ first winning season since 2005-06.

You can see Huerter’s bright smile, his dollop of red hair peeking over his headband. There he is, palm pressed proudly on the button that blasts Sacramento’s victory beam into space. There are pictures with his tongue balled after cashing another from distance and jogging back on defense. The camera always captures his shoulders squared to the basket before he fires, his digits stitched like second nature into the black lines of that orange ball.

Sacramento operates what may finish as the most lethal offense in NBA history, currently blitzing opponents for 119.6 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass, and Huerter’s dribble-handoff action with All-Star big man Domantas Sabonis serves as a foundation of that attack. “He’s what makes our offense go,” Huerter said. “He’s the key to the puzzle.” Their synergy sparks. It sparked from their first time sharing Sacramento’s practice gym back in August, and Sabonis gleefully approached his new marksmen at the wing.

SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 24: Kevin Huerter #9 of the Sacramento Kings drives to the basket past Landry Shamet #14 of the Phoenix Suns during the third quarter of an NBA basketball game at Golden 1 Center on March 24, 2023 in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Kevin Huerter drives to the basket past Landry Shamet at Golden 1 Center on March 24, 2023, in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Sometimes there’s a third player, a third chess piece. And whether it’s Huerter or a teammate screening down in the corner, either can end up boomeranging around their point center. But it’s Huerter and Sabonis who seem to speak their own language without saying a word. Like a pair of mimes, watch Sabonis take the ball and mirror Huerter’s movements while he’s juking his defender. “Setting my man up the right way, giving myself up if I need to. Obviously, run off screens, but trying to back-cut people, too,” Huerter explained. “So much of what I do is the threat that I could go back door, and everyone’s always worried about that.”

Mike Brown caught glimpses of Huerter’s dynamism on film. The Kings head coach watched a lot of tape on Atlanta last offseason, particularly of John Collins, as Sacramento discussed various trade packages that would have landed the Hawks forward with the Kings. “Every time it seemed like Collins was getting an open-corner, catch-and-shoot 3, it was coming from the weak side, where Kevin would be a secondary pick-and-roll guy,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “And he’d come off that screen and put that thing right on time, on target, right in the shooting pocket.”

Huerter didn’t know it would be Sacramento, he didn’t know it would even be him, but he believed changes were coming in Atlanta after a playoff flameout against Miami. Then the Hawks mortgaged three first-round picks to pair Trae Young with another All-Star guard in Dejounte Murray, and Huerter started to see the writing on State Farm Arena’s walls. His starting spot seemed to have disappeared. “It just felt like there were too many cooks in the kitchen,” Huerter said. “Somebody was gonna go.”

Bogdan Bogdanovic, a fellow Atlanta swingman and Huerter’s close friend, underwent June knee surgery that cast a shadow over the veteran’s own trade prospects. Huerter, meanwhile, was entering the first season of what league executives considered a four-year, $65 million value contract. He was the player rival front offices wanted to pry from the Hawks’ crowded backcourt, all while Huerter’s group of vacationing friends settled into a sprawling villa in Ibiza.

His representation dialed across the Atlantic the morning free agency began, informing Huerter several teams were moving forward in conversations to acquire his services. There were minutes to be had here and a specific role to be had there. Not a mention of the Kings, but Huerter was told to stay by his phone. And so his cell baked in the Spanish sun while Huerter lounged at the pool. Until the phone overheated, and Huerter scrambled to place it back inside. His buddies were tossing a coin into the water and racing to retrieve it. Over the hour the device cooled, Sacramento and Atlanta finalized terms, allowing the Hawks to replenish a top-14 protected 2024 first-round pick from Sacramento, plus forward Justin Holiday, whom head coach Nate McMillan coached during a stint in Indiana and envisioned as a key piece in the Hawks’ rotation.

Huerter couldn’t think much of his fit with Sabonis, or the opportunity to pair with another All-Star talent in Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox. His mind raced around a track of logistics. He’d purchased a home in Atlanta and lived in it for less than a year. “Everything was about to change,” Huerter said. “And Northern California is about as opposite as you can get.” Far away from Georgia, and even further from his childhood in Clifton Park, New York — a 20-minute drive across the Mohawk River from Siena College, where his father, Tom, helped the No. 14-seed Saints knock off No. 3 seed Stanford in the first round of the 1989 NCAA tournament.

Huerter was a ball kid at Siena games, bonding with head coach Fran McCaffery’s sons as they rebounded. He chucked 3-pointers before warmups without the requisite strength, and the off-hand thumb flick still evident in Huerter’s shooting mechanics was born. Coaches have always tried to tweak his form. Mark Turgeon helped Huerter launch quicker and with greater arc during two years at Maryland, but the results have always shown.

After a stellar showing at the combine, and a blistering performance in a pre-draft workout with the Lakers, Los Angeles promised Huerter the franchise would select him No. 25 in the 2018 NBA Draft. Huerter, though, had already visited with the Hawks, the same day Lloyd Pierce walked into his first interview for Atlanta’s head coaching job. General manager Travis Schlenk began the day raving to Pierce about Huerter’s skill set at 6-foot-7, and the Hawks nearly traded up two slots to select Huerter before nabbing him at No. 19 that June.

When Atlanta’s rookies reported for training camp, they were tasked with putting together a talent show. Huerter stepped to the microphone and belted a rendition of Ice Cube’s “It Was a Good Day,” rapping how he messed around and got a triple double. The film room erupted. He flashed his handle during ensuing practices, zipping those cross-court skip passes that Brown later spotted on tape, and Atlanta teammates DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince soon minted Huerter with the nickname of “K’Von.”

“They talked about him having a lot of soul to his game,” Pierce said.

“When he went into his bag,” said former Hawks assistant Melvin Hunt. “When he was doing plain vanilla stuff, he was ‘Kevin.’” A Twitter fan poll left Huerter with the moniker of “Red Velvet” that has followed him to Sacramento.

Hunt prioritized Huerter’s development on defense. Opponents would target the lanky first-year guard and hunt him on switches. He didn’t need to be a lockdown pest, but it was necessary for Huerter to snuff out rotations. Hunt had seen Seth Curry thrive in Dallas without anyone confusing him for some type of stopper. “As long as you’re in the right spot, sometimes they’ll throw the ball right to you,” Hunt said. Whenever Huerter did slide into passing lanes as the ball swung his direction, he would find Hunt on the bench and flash a smiling shrug.

That spring brought Huerter’s first taste of postseason action, albeit from the stands. Sixers longtime logistics chief Allen Lumpkin hooked up Pierce, a former Philadelphia assistant, with a pair of second-row seats for Game 6 of the second round against Kawhi Leonard’s Toronto Raptors. On the flight up, Pierce quizzed Huerter on matchups and adjustments for his former 76ers to send the series back north. “He really took note of the possession-for-possession aspect of a playoff game,” Pierce said. “Those things, they matter.”

“It’s a big chess match between these coaches,” Huerter told Yahoo Sports. “The game changes. It’s played differently.”

Two years later, on that same exact court, Huerter played what he views as the definitive game of his career. Young waltzed across Madison Square Garden during Atlanta’s first-round upset of New York and carried much of the Hawks’ 2021 second-round spar with the Sixers. But Huerter delivered a rugged 27-point performance to power Atlanta’s Game 7 victory over top-seeded Philadelphia. “That was, like, my national coming out party,” he said. Huerter often found Curry guarding him, the very inspiration for his own defensive progression, and brutalized his opponent standing five inches shorter, pounding the rock into a flurry of midrange fallaways.

When Huerter makes his imminent return to that postseason stage, opposing coaches will hone into Sacramento’s patented dribble-handoff action. The Kings’ starting unit has played over 800 minutes together, far and away the highest total of any five-man lineup in the NBA, but only Sabonis, Huerter and Harrison Barnes have reached the postseason.

“We still have other ways to score around it,” Brown told Yahoo Sports. “But when he’s on the floor, he has to be guarded. If he’s not the one making plays, we feel like we have other guys who can pass, dribble and shoot, and he makes their ability to do that a lot easier just by his mere presence, just by him flying off screens.”

“There’s so many layers to our offense that I don’t think you can achieve in just a traditional pick-and-roll,” Huerter said. “Pick-and-roll in the NBA is extremely difficult to guard if you have the right personnel. Trae and Clint [Capela] and John Collins straight pick-and-roll is going to be really successful. Trae can shoot floaters, he can shoot 3s, he can get downhill and throw lobs. But if teams can figure that out, it’s like, OK, what do you have next?”

There is no malice in Huerter’s voice, no slights targeted at Atlanta’s scheme. The words flow from Huerter like he’s an objective analyst on a Sloan Conference panel. He wore a forest green sweatsuit for this conversation, his hands either politely folded or arms tucked around one another. “So for our offense, you might be able to take away our first and second action. But the way we drill things, the way they teach things and coach things, our offense doesn’t stop moving. We have layers upon layers where we get into different actions and it triggers this separate thing, and people are unselfish with their passing.”

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