Enter V.J. King. The freshmen forward from Cleveland, Ohio came into this season with much optimism from Cardinal fans. He’s a gold medal winner with Team USA Basketball already (2013 FIBA Americas U16, 2014 FIBA U17 World Championship) and ESPN.com had him regarded as a five star recruit. Expectations on him were high, but Cardinal fans were resigned to the fact that it would take him a little while to earn Coach Pitino’s trust and to acclimate himself to the offensive and defensive schemes in Louisville. While this is true, we are starting to see flashes of that go-to guy potential in V.J.King.
If I had to describe V.J. King’s game in one word, I’d probably use “reliable” or “smooth.” He plays in control at all times and you can count on him to make the right play. King has all the tools to succeed at this level and probably at the NBA level. He’s a good shooter and in fact, he is second on the Cardinals in three-point percentage at 53%. The Cardinals like to drive and kick, but unfortunately, those they are kicking to haven’t been knocking down shots lately: Adel is shooting a mere 28.9% from 3, Snider is at 33%, and Donovan Mitchell is at 29%. King is only attempting 1.4 threes per game, but if they can bring that number up and if he can continue with his sharpshooting, the Cardinals offense would improve drastically. Watch this Cardinals possession and watch as King quietly gravitates to the left corner and drills the 3:
The Cardinals also lack a guy who can create his own shot. V.J. King has shown some ability to create off the dribble and also get to the rim (and finish) with ease. If King can create off the dribble, that should make life easier for the aforementioned Quentin Snider, Deng Adel, and Donovan Mitchell. Instead of them having to create their own shots, they could spot up and knock down open jumpers, which is something they’re probably more equipped to do. Here are two examples where V.J. King was able to create and convert on his own shot:
As V.J. King becomes more comfortable with the speed and intensity of college basketball, we should see more and more of this. When that happens, it could propel Louisville into the top 10 and make them a dangerous threat come March.
But, as I said, there is a learning curve to be expected for King and in particular, on defense. Rick Pitino teams are known for their intensity and their defensive excellence. King has to show more intensity and confidence on the defensive end. I’d venture a guess that King only averaging 14.8 minutes per game has more to do with his defense than what we’re seeing on the offensive end. Here’s two examples from Saturday’s game against the Eastern Kentucky University Colonels. On this first play, notice King leaves his man (#5, senior guard Isaac McGlone) to double team sophomore F/C Nick Mayo (#10). Double teaming Mayo isn’t a bad idea – he’s averaging 18.9 points per game this season – but leaving McGlone, a career 38% three-point shooter and currently shooting 42% on the season, wide open is. Watch the possession and notice that King doesn’t close out on McGlone with urgency:
Obviously, the Cardinals were up big in this game and that one basket wasn’t likely to make a difference, but for Coach Pitino to have confidence in V.J. King, he’s going to want to see him bring it for 40 minutes a game.
Here’s the very next possession in the game. Notice that Mayo sets a screen for McGlone, but King evades the screen and somehow McGlone is able to beat him off the dribble for a layup attempt:
McGlone is a good player, but King should be able to keep up with him and not let him get to the rim. Again, in the overall scheme of this game it didn’t matter, but what about on Wednesday night if that’s Isaiah Briscoe, De’Aaron Fox, or Malik Monk late in the second half? Pitino probably wants to see more defensive intensity from King before rewarding him with more minutes, but intensity and confidence will come as King adjusts to the speed and nature of college basketball. By the end of the season, we will probably see him much more feisty and energetic on that end.
King has the potential to do great things for the Louisville Cardinals basketball program. The Cardinals had a good team that made the Final Four in 2012-2013 (losing to eventual champion the Kentucky Wildcats and Anthony Davis) and I remember watching that team and thinking they were still a piece and a year away. Guys were having to do things that they weren’t comfortable with, they didn’t have the chemistry that a championship team usually can find, but they were playing hard and winning. The next season it all clicked and the Cardinals became NCAA Champions. I have the same gut feeling about this team and if V.J. King can develop into the kind of player he’s projected to be, this team, which only has 3 seniors in Mangok Mathiang, David Levitch, and transfer Tony Hicks, could have great things on the horizon.