Which Kings non-starter must take biggest leap next season?

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Which Kings non-starter must take biggest leap next season? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

The Kings had a historic run during the 2022-23 NBA season, but their true test begins next season.

Sacramento changed the narrative about Kings basketball. The All-NBA pairing of Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox became the hottest duo in town. Keegan Murray gave fans something to be excited about now and in the long run. New faces like Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk provided a joyous spark that made it easy for fans to sport a band-aid on their face or headband in support.

Collectively, the team made magic.

But it wasn’t enough. Their first postseason appearance in 17 years began and ended in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. While they gave the then-defending champion Golden State Warriors a fight, the Kings’ storybook season came to a bittersweet close.

Now, as they look to open a new chapter and build off that momentum, it will be on each player to make individual improvements that will translate to team success in the 2023-24 season.

No player has understood that assignment more than Davion Mitchell.

Mitchell, entering his third NBA season, has approached the offseason with a vengeance. He took last season personally after a significant decrease in his playing time. Instead of complaining and moping around, though, the 24-year-old guard took matters into his own hands this summer.

As a rookie, Mitchell averaged 11.5 points, 2.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists in 27.7 minutes played. In his sophomore season, those numbers slipped to 5.6 points, 1.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists in 18.1 minutes played. But that isn’t where his game shines brightest.

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His “Off-Night” nickname stems from his defensive prowess, something any team would die for. But he’s the best defender on a team that strives off its historically great offense. While a player’s commitment to defense typically keeps them on the court, it kept Mitchell off the court in big moments last season.

That’s because Sacramento flourishes off spacing for Fox or Sabonis to find and connect with an outside shooter – an area of Mitchell’s game that could use some improvement.

Last season, Mitchell learned that the hard way.

While Sacramento’s defense improved with Mitchell on the floor last season, specifically going from a 111.8 defensive rating to to 115.4, per NBA Stats, its offensive rating was 114.4 with him on the floor compared to 118.1 with him off.

Shooting the 3-ball at an efficient clip remains the top priority for Mitchell as he enters Year 3. He’s even working on his shot with the man who trains the greatest 3-point shooter in NBA history. And as a career 31.7 percent 3-point shooter (25.9 percent in the playoffs), it’s been a point of emphasis over the last four months after he acknowledged it’s what kept him off the court last season.

“I think every year, something that’s always being talked about is developing my jump shot,” Mitchell said last month on a special edition of the “#ThisLeague Uncut” podcast. “That’s kind of been the biggest piece every year, and I think it’s making progress. Even when I was in college, I kind of had the same problem my first two years, and then I kept getting better and better each year.

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“The more comfortable I get, the more confidence I have, the more the shots go in, the better the percentage is, the more I play because I can be on the floor and shoot the ball and be good defensively, so that’s an aspect I’ve been working on. Even this whole summer, that’s been my main focus, working on my jump shot so they have no reason for me not to be on the floor. Defensively, you know, I’m going to do what I have to do, and I think offensively, then I can kind of be on the floor the whole time.”

Most notably, Mitchell was kept off the floor for a majority of the Kings’ most important games of the season – Games 6 and 7 of the first-round series against the Warriors. He was assigned with the challenging task of guarding Steph Curry in the first five games of the best-of-seven series, and held up well, relatively speaking. He averaged 24.1 minutes in those games.

But Kings coach Mike Brown switched things up for the final two contests of the series, essentially choosing Terence Davis’ offense over Mitchell’s defense.

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“Our best game of the series was Game 6 and [Davis] guarded Steph. We felt it gave Fox and Malik a lot of room because TD was obviously a high-level shooter for us,” Brown said after Sacramento’s Game 7 loss while explaining why Mitchell didn’t play more.

That Game 7 loss included Curry’s historic 50-point explosion, but Brown maintained that the Kings didn’t lose because of the two-time NBA MVP’s performance, but rather because of allowing 18 offensive boards and missing free throws.

That meant Mitchell had to watch his season end from the sidelines, itching and patiently waiting for an opportunity to contribute that never came.

Immediately after, he vowed to never allow himself to go through that again.

Every offseason, players use the time to go back to their hometowns, reset and spend time with their friends and family. For Mitchell, the gym has been his home. He’s been putting in the work day in and day out, sharing his offseason work to social media with eye-popping workout videos.

But he can only hope that the hype videos will translate to real results on the hardwood when it actually matters. It could make all the difference for the Kings, and pivotal to Mitchell’s growth and continued development as a player.

And maybe it will only be a matter of time until “Off-Night” doesn’t get an off night.

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