The shooting guard battle for the Sacramento Kings was probably decided before training camp ever began. Rookie Ben McLemore is the heir apparent to the position, but at 20 years old, there is plenty of time to let this kid grow into his game. Jimmer Fredette has made a run, maybe even earning himself some regular-season minutes with his preseason play, but at the end of the day, the guy with the experience is probably going to get the nod.
This is just a prediction, but opening night will mark the 100th start of Marcus Thornton‘s five year career. He isn’t the sexy pick that a lot of the fans are calling for, but he is probably the team’s best option to open the season.
Coach Michael Malone has compared the 26-year-old scorer to former Detroit Piston Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, a player who played for his father back in Brendan Malone’s days as a Pistons assistant. Johnson played in one of the greatest three-guard sets in NBA history, backing up Hall of Fame players Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars.
The comparison is fair, but it’s also telling of where Malone would probably prefer to use Thornton long-term. Like Johnson, Thornton is a streak shooter who rarely fills up the entire stat sheet. But besides experience, he has one major advantage over his competition – Malone knows his game well from their days together with the Hornets.
“Obviously, I have history with Marcus coaching him down in New Orleans,” Malone said after practice on Thursday. “I do know what he’s capable of. He won games for us in New Orleans just like I know he’s won games for this team here in Sacramento. But it’s just kind of what’s best for our team – is he better suited in a Vinnie Johnson-type role off the bench scoring or is he best suited for us as a starter?”
“I know what he’s all about, and he knows what I can do,” Thornton said of Malone. “We’re one. We’re on the same page. As a player and a coach, that’s all you can ask for.”
In the NBA, there are workout warriors, gym rats and then a few who combine the two. Thornton has always been the gym rat type, who prefers to get his blood pumping on the court more than in the weight room. But with a new regime in Sacramento from top to bottom, the former LSU star came in noticeably more muscular, looking to avoid the bumps and bruises that have cost him 25 games over the last two seasons.
But his competition has done the same thing. Jimmer looks more confident and aggressive. A season ago, teams ran traps at the former BYU star, and he had no answer. But that is not the player we’re seeing through four preseason games.
The same can be said about McLemore. After a train wreck of a summer league, the seventh overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft is blossoming. He has the size, athleticism and shooting touch to be an elite player in the league.
“With Jimmer, you can see the progression. You know, what he’s been working on over the summer,” Thornton said of his competition. “With Ben, he’s just a great talent for us. As a rookie, he’s doing everything right and he can only get better.”
Thornton knows what he’s up against. Last summer, he lost his starting job to Tyreke Evans. His minutes dropped from 35 per game in 2011-12 to 24 in the 2012-13 season. He made it clear early in the season that he didn’t want to talk about his new role off the bench or his reduction in minutes.
Maybe last year’s experience prepared him better for the reality of being an NBA player. He seems willing to look behind him this time around and embrace the fact that he is a cog in a much bigger machine – a machine that watches new talent enter the league every year, perform and eventually get set aside for the next big thing.
McLemore is the next big thing in Sacramento. If his preseason play is an indicator of what’s to come, coach Malone is going to have a difficult decision to make very soon.
Thornton would love to go back to playing 35 minutes a night, but he is saying the right things when it comes to his young, potentially minute-stealing understudy.
“It’s not competition. We’re all one team,” Thornton said when asked about McLemore. “Anything Ben needs help with, I’m there for him. We all play the two, so we all defend each other. We’re all going to go at it, but at the end of the day, we’re all one team.”
The Kings are playing with a new sense of camaraderie under coach Malone. Be it as a starter or a reserve, the players seem at ease. They are learning to play as a team and show trust in one another.
“I’m human,” Thornton said. “I wouldn’t be able to play 48 minutes (for) 82 games. So, It’s good to have guys that you know you can trust to pick up your slack when you need it.”
It’s early, but Thornton seems different. The team seems different. They are saying the right things, acting the right way and maybe it will translate to better basketball on the floor.