There is just one absolute, consistent thing Kevin Huerter is hoping to find in Sacramento, the city he moved to at the end of August following his trade from the Hawks, and it’s a red sauce joint. Huerter calls himself “a big food guy” and while he relies on a chef at home, he enjoys going out to eat. Settling into a new city is all about establishing new landmarks, new favorites, new routines, and Huerter, who notes much of the adjustment for him comes away from the court, has slowly been doing that in finding different restaurants and “seeing what Sac has to offer”, but a solid Italian-American bistro eludes him.
For someone who spent the last four seasons shifting in and out of supporting and main assignments in Atlanta, adjusting to head coaching and roster changes, plus the toll injuries and Covid took on the Hawks throughout, the promise of a more consistent, definitive role with the Kings might be welcome, but it wouldn’t reflect the quieter skill Huerter has been honing up to this point: pragmatism.
“Your life is always changing. That’s off the court, that’s on the court,” Huerter says, sitting relaxed but intent on a couch post-scrimmage in a bright, quiet nook of the team’s private facilities within the Golden 1 Center, “I also think that’s the nature of the NBA. It’s your lifestyle.”
“Moving across the country, brand new team, starting a new contract, changing my whole life,” he continues. “It feels like, the first phase of my career was in Atlanta, that was my ‘Welcome to the NBA’, get my feet in the ground, figure out my role and my place. Now it’s literally just starting a new chapter, new city, new team.”
The Kings were quick to fit Huerter into their pre-camp drills and workouts, and Huerter notes how “seamless” that side of the relocation felt, “When you’re in the gym it’s like anything else.”
While the fundamentals of work may be the same no matter the gym, a good chunk of that seamlessness stems directly from Huerter developing versatility as its own deployable skill. Whether asked to step in and defend against opposing point guards, often acting as a buffer for Trae Young, or trading in his own touches and shots to give the team what it needed, Huerter, as the Hawks designated Swiss Army knife, improved season over season in Atlanta. His overall points, assists, and rebounding ticked up while his minutes hovered steady around 30 per game, and he honed his defensive capabilities by intently studying film of stoic sentries like Nikola Jokic. The work was what he became familiar with, even if his role continued to shift.
About that, Huerter is just as pragmatic, saying while he is hopeful for the potential of more stability in Sacramento, a lot of what happened in Atlanta “was in some ways out of anyone’s control” (his most pointed observation, and one Hawks fans surely feel personally, came in an almost regretful aside, “It felt like we were always hurt”). Where he brightens, or shifts from more methodical beats, is when he begins to talk through the budding identity of the Kings.
“The way Domas [Sabonis] plays, and his passing ability, and De’Aaron’s [Fox] ability to get up and down the court and play fast and get downhill. Sometimes having bigger guys on the court can slow that down a bit — and the flow of the offense. I think what you’ve seen them do here, bringing myself, drafting Keegan [Murray], having a guy like Harrison [Barnes] around and Trey Lyles, we can all play multiple positions. De’Aaron can slide to the two, I think really everybody can be versatile and play a lot of different ways.”
It’s in listening to Huerter’s birds-eye perspective of the team that his prescriptive sense of the game comes through. Growing up, he often found himself up against older players, and where he lacked size and strength, he relied on his IQ and intuition. That point guard’s perspective gives him the sort of court vision that readily assembles his teammates, and often leaves him slotting in secondarily, even mentally, where he’s needed. With the Kings smaller and quick roster, this perceptive feel for the floor, not to mention players adept at shifting spots, could make for a high-flying and high-minded team this season.
“The best teams can think the game,” Huerter says, “They got guys that might be playing out of position, but it’s positionless basketball. Everybody knows the old ground and pound, and box sets, playing mid-range game — it’s not the NBA anymore. And I think our personnel fits what the NBA is and is obviously continuing to become.”
Still, while pace and space are paramount in the modern NBA, some emerging contenders around the league are sizing up, and the Kings, even if they intend to skew small, have options for scale. Huerter lists Richaun Holmes, Alex Len, Chimezie Metu, Sabonis.
“So” Huerter gives a knowing smile, “we got some muscle if we need it.”
Some of that muscle went to visit Huerter in the offseason. The Kings new player development coach, Deividas Dulkys, joined the team this summer after serving as an assistant coach with the Grizzlies’ G League arm, Memphis Hustle, and has quickly become close with Huerter. Dulkys, a swingman who knows what it is to be asked to do a bit of everything, played in college at Florida State and internationally in Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Turkey, Italy and Spain, stopped in on Huerter twice this past summer in upstate New York. Huerter runs offseason youth basketball camps in his hometown of Clifton Park, and Dulkys dropped in for a couple days to watch. He also worked out with Huerter, met his family — who “love my fit basketball wise, love all that” but will have to adjust to west coast time and distance — and personal trainer, and “saw my small bubble in upstate New York that I like to get away to,” Huerter smiles.
Back in Sacramento, Huerter has been to Dulkys’ home and met his family. Huerter credits him with “making it not feel so foreign out here”.
“With anything, it doesn’t have to be all job, all business all the time. There’s relationships and things you can build. He’s definitely been someone that I’ve found a nice friendship in so far,” Huerter says.
The new feel of the team is palpable. Beyond the roster adjustments, much of the front office and team support staff have changed, plus, most publicly, a new head coach in Mike Brown. There’s an energy around the team that feels urgent without veering desperate, a lightness in the clean slate of new personnel, plus rookie Keegan Murray, and the feeling of the team’s forming identity being in the hands of its players.
“Guys are competing like they know it’s a season we have to win. Guys who don’t have a reason to be here are here, that doesn’t always happen with every team,” Huerter says of the stretch before training camp started. “Just guys working out together, getting used to each other, it’s a lot of new faces. I think it’s already positive, it isn’t like that everywhere in the NBA.”
Other off court connections have come just as naturally. Huerter says he’s played golf with Murray, Malik Monk, and Sam Merrill, and of his new point guard, Fox, it “feels like we’re always working out at the same time, lifting, getting treatment.”
For his approach to figuring out the city, the team, and the relationships within it being so panoramic, with everything prioritized just ahead of himself, it feels correct that Huerter would finally land on his own fit with the Kings toward the interview’s end. Of his role, though, he is pragmatic as ever. He notes learning how the “head of the snake” in Fox, Sabonis, and Harrison will function, and how he can best play off the trio and “make their lives easier.” When the question of fresh starts comes up again, as in, how to tell what is good baggage worth keeping versus what has to be jettisoned for personal progress, Huerter pauses, perhaps thinking through everything the last four years have brought.
“In some ways I am coming in with experience — playing in the playoffs, coming into my 5th year — there’s guys here who haven’t played at that level, haven’t had those minutes. And I’ve been on some really bad teams, and a couple really good teams, teams that got hot and found a way to win at a really high level. And so in just four years, I think I’ve seen a lot already. I’ve been in a lot of different scenarios. Hopefully a little of that experience I can bring to this team,” he says.
“I think my role is always going to change. My strengths — being a playmaker, making shots, doing my part defensively — that’ll never change. Whatever my role is, I know that’s my focus. I’m just going to try to stick to that, and maybe a month into the season I’ll have a better answer for you.”
A month into this season and it isn’t hard to picture this team’s fresh start and intuitive identity, their new routines, taking hold with Huerter’s help as an on and off floor facilitator — and he’ll know the best place to go in Sac for chicken parm, or the best five.