Aspiring kings are eager to take the next steps

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Team camaraderie and a cultural shift culminated in a special season in Sacramento, but the Kings players won’t settle for a first-round elimination.

With less than 24 hours to go on his first playoff run, De’Aaron Fox, still riding a wave of emotion, pointed to all the positive steps his team had taken during the season and then aspired to unfinished business to settle matters.

A young group that many assumed would be at least a year away from making serious noise after the season, believed early on that they were building something special. Her unity combined with her summer work, grinding behind closed doors when attention wasn’t being paid, has given her the ability to surprise the league and push the defending champions to their limits.

But that taste of the playoffs has proved bittersweet, Fox says, making it clear he’s not happy with the first-round elimination and that he’ll use the deficit as motivation.

“You take that feeling and you build on that feeling because you don’t want to feel that again,” Fox said. “I just feel like that helps you grow as a player and when you have a lot of like-minded people in the dressing room that’s what drives you as a team. We just build on that. We’re taking what we’ve learned throughout the season… You take away the pain you felt and you become a better team.”

Despite the far from happy ending, a monumental year for Fox had all the elements of a cinematic masterpiece – an underdog tale of overcoming adversity, earning national respect and making history along the way, set to a rallying cry soundtrack by the crowd and glow of the violet ray illuminating the night sky.

“I think it was almost like out of a movie, just like that, when my life came together like this,” said Fox, who welcomed his first child, Reign, with his wife Recee. “I definitely think that the year 25 is probably the best year of my life for me. I just want to continue this. I want to keep that feeling alive.”

The All-Star guard isn’t the only one who wasn’t ready to roll the credits on the most memorable Kings season in recent memory. From Kevin Huerter to Malik Monk to Trey Lyles, players of all ups and downs have found a home in Sacramento, where they’ve clicked the court and eaten together, united by the greater goal of winning and a sense that this is their time .

“Coming back is honestly my top priority,” Lyles said. “The scholarships, the relationships I was able to form with these guys, surpassed anything I’ve had in the past.”

Highlights for Huerter included exuberant fan support at the Golden 1 Center for the climactic first playoff game when the crowd hit decibels that had never been heard by anyone in the organization.

“I think one moment I’ll never forget was Game 1 when it ran onto the pitch in this building. That was electrifying, it really was,” said Hürter. “You keep running and chills run down your spine. There was a structure for that. You hear about the drought, you hear how crazy it’s going to be, and everyone’s talking about how Sac fans are going to show it. It was really like [that]. We ran out of the tunnel and there was bullying. We were on the pitch and there were 18,000 people ready to get started.”

This introduction to the postseason was just the first chapter, a cliffhanger set to continue, and as Sacramento prepares for the highly-anticipated sequel, it’s entering the offseason with more answers than questions for the first time in a while.

“I think we all bet [around the league] on notification,” said Monk. “But for us, I think maybe it lets us achieve even more because we know what we can achieve and we know what the playoffs feel like.”

winning formula: With his speedy point guard at the controls, the Kings’ record-breaking offense hummed like a well-oiled machine, and with dribbling handover host Domantas Sabonis surrounded by some of the league’s best wingers, there’s far less talk of what the Kings could be considered beyond what they already are.

That shift began with Mike Brown, the first unanimous Coach of the Year in league history, who was instrumental in building a winning culture and was an invaluable influence by encouraging players to be themselves.

“As soon as he came here, he said he wanted to change the culture,” Monk said. “When me, him and Kev met, he said the same thing to us and we wanted the same thing. His voice has been just so amazing for us this year and his experience of going through so many different things in so many different periods of time has just helped us a lot.”

Under Brown, players embraced them and put the needs of the team ahead of their own. With a rotation of core players that couldn’t be more reliable, Sacramento has a high-level balance and chemistry honed over months of team training and 89 games together.

“I feel like over the year we’ve gotten better and learned more about each other’s tendencies. what players like and don’t like,” said Sabonis. “Starting the year knowing all of this already and adding things in the summer will be very helpful. And the coaching staff knows your tendencies [us] knowing them will definitely help, especially with summer approaching.”

beginner tasks: Keegan Murray, the No. 4 draft, not only set a league record for most three-pointers by a rookie in the regular season (206), but was also the only freshman in the entire league to make the significant one Minutes garnered in the playoffs.

The level of maturity, composure and confidence he displayed in his freshman year impressed many in the league, and as a sign of what’s to come, the Iowa product picked up points not just from behind the arc, but by finishing off Cuts, transitions, and rides in the playoffs.

“He was amazing,” said Sabonis. “Even as the series progressed, he regained his confidence and wasn’t just shooting three-pointers. He was dribbling and getting into traffic, shooting floaters, mid-range shots, all these hard shots that he hasn’t really done all year. So that’s something you can see for the next year and expect him to be more active with the ball. That will open up a lot of things for us.”

Still, Murray wasn’t immune to the rookie duties handed down by the veterans, and he performed every task without complaint.

“I’ve taken Chic-Fil-A to every away game, so I’ve [spent] $300 for every single road trip,” Murray said with a rare smile. “So that it kind of hurts me. But they’re cool with everything I’ve done; a few little things I had to do. They are good people.”

Next Steps: A sparkling 48-34 record, propelled by his ability to put points on the board, is Sacramento’s bottom rather than his ceiling, but what the regular season and playoffs bolstered hinted is defense must come first.

“Everyone has their nights when they don’t shoot well, but as a team defense we need to show more consistency in that regard,” Fox said. “You don’t want to be a bottom five team on defense for an entire season and then just expect it to reverse in the playoffs… We just have to show defensively that we can be a much better team.”

Both Fox and Sabonis also have more defined individual offseason goals, recognizing their own shooting limitations and inconsistencies that contributed to Sacramento’s playoff outster.

“Of course my shooting; I have to have confidence when I go out and photograph this [mid-range] shot,” said Sabonis. “If [the Warriors] Had my shot paid more attention, we probably would have been [playing the way] We did all season instead of the big play back from me. So that would have helped us a lot.”

To withstand the grind of a long season spanning October through late April and beyond, and the demands of their turn-on-the-jets offensive, stamina and stamina will be a priority, among other areas.

“In order to continue to improve in my role, I think that will be a big focus for me this summer: to be in really good shape,” said Hürter. “I think going into next year you have to be in really good form on my offense and this series has shown that.”

Soon: Fox and Sabonis have endured far more than normal attrition over the course of the season, but notably missed just 12 regular-season games (none of them in the playoffs).

No. 5 does not need surgery on his broken index finger and expects the finger to fully heal within two to three weeks. Sabonis will see a hand specialist to determine if the avulsion fracture in his right thumb requires rest or surgery, but whatever the course of action, the big man is already itching to return to the hardwood and help his team push deeper into the postseason .

“It’s never a relaxing summer,” said No. 10. “I always can’t wait to get back to the gym and start working and preparing.”

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