Luc Mbah a Moute warms up pregame. (Photo: Morgan Ragan)

Luc Mbah a Moute didn’t see it coming. Before shootaround leading up to the Sacramento Kings’ matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies last week, his head coach delivered him some startling news.

He was starting.

“I was surprised because I went from not playing to starting,” Mbah a Moute said after Kings practice Friday in Natomas. “It wasn’t really anything in between.”

“But, that’s the duty (we have),” the 27-year-old forward added. “You have to be ready at all times, so I tried to be ready for when the opportunity (would) come.”

The acquisition of Mbah a Moute in the offseason brought a sliver of hope to a position that’s been a pit of despair for the Kings over the last six years. Mbah a Moute came to Sacramento from Milwaukee with the reputation of a savvy, versatile defender on his resume. Despite coming off two injury-riddled seasons, there wasn’t any reason to think that Mbah a Moute, entering his sixth campaign on a very reasonable two-year deal, couldn’t at least be a solid, temporary fix in the new regime’s overhaul of the franchise.

Doubts about Mbah a Moute’s health unfortunately resurfaced themselves early into his Kings tenure. Soreness in his surgically repaired right knee flared up during the tail end of training camp and limited his preparation for the regular season in the exhibition schedule. When the Kings finally opened up the regular season, Mbah a Moute found himself glued to the bench, stuck watching games from the sidelines in his warm-ups.

Leading up to his first start last week against the Grizzlies, Mbah a Moute had appeared in just four of the Kings’ previous eight games. Mbah a Moute’s playing time was limited in three of those four contests as well, averaging just under a shade of 10 minutes a game against the Warriors, Blazers and Nets.

So what swayed Michael Malone to turn to the sixth-year veteran? Malone says he liked the way Mbah a Moute defended LaMarcus Aldridge in a 96-85 loss to the Blazers. But his confidence in Mbah a Moute grew more after the veteran small forward put together several impressive practice sessions in between games.

“I wasn’t playing him a whole lot because he missed most of the preseason – six preseason games he was out,” Malone said. “He missed a lot of practice time, so once he put together a string of practices where (I could say), ‘Ok, I can see what you can do and you can do it and you can sustain that, that gave me the confidence to put him out there and start playing him more.”

Mbah a Moute went on to play 29 minutes in the Kings’ home loss to the Detroit Pistons. He posted a respectable stat line – nine points on 4-of-7 shooting plus a steal and a block off the Kings’ bench. That extended look coupled with incumbent starter John Salmons’ continued shooting struggles prompted Malone to move Mbah a Moute into his first unit two days later.

Since then, Mbah a Moute has started the last five games, averaging 5.8 points, 4.4 rebounds and 1.2 steals in 28.8 minutes. They’re meager stats, but one has to look to the opponent’s side of the box score to see where Mbah a Moute’s impact is really felt.

In last Wednesday’s win over the Suns, he limited Gerald Green to just three points in the second half after the 27-year-old guard scored 20 before halftime. And in Saturday’s defeat to the Clippers, Mbah a Moute took on the task of slowing down Chris Paul. His length and ability to stay in front of the All-Star point guard gave the Kings a fighting chance until he fouled out in the final 1:10 of the tightly-contested game.

“It’s been alright,” Mbah a Moute said of adjusting to his new role as starting small forward. “I think the main thing for me is just to go in there, bring that defensive presence and energy. Make sure we get (off) to a good start defensively.”

Even though he’s starting, Mbah a Moute is still learning teammates’ tendencies and habits on the court. Missing most of October due to the soreness in his right knee limited his opportunities to build chemistry with his new team. It is a process that he admits hasn’t been easy, but is a challenge he is enjoying.

Whether starting or coming off the bench, Mbah a Moute understands his place on the floor. He believes that raising his teammates’ level of awareness on defense is one of his primary responsibilities for the Kings.

“I think it’s everybody’s (duty), but I take it personal obviously,” Mbah a Moute said. “Because when I’m on the floor, I really like for us to be really good defensively. So I try to be more vocal, try to let guys know where to go.

“Sometimes it’s tough because you have to guard one of the best players, so it’s not easy to talk and do that at the same time,” he added. “But I try to do what I can, try to get everybody on the right position.”

Malone believes Mbah a Moute’s presence on the court is making a mark on teammates. The Kings coach praised Mbah a Moute’s ability to not only raise his team’s effort on defense, but also sees them playing smarter with the veteran forward on the court.

“He’s a guy that’s kind of made his name in the NBA as a defensive player,” Malone said. “And he’s a guy that when he was in Milwaukee and I was coaching in Cleveland, he would literally guard one through four – Mo Williams to the power forward. So, I think he has a high IQ and he embraces that end of the floor.”

When it comes to offense, Mbah a Moute hasn’t over-extended himself. He’s played well within the confines of his abilities, often times creating space as a spot-up jump shooter or moving defenses by cutting to the rim.

His ball-handling has been better than expected, too. When Ben McLemore was moved into the first unit, observers of the team speculated that Salmons remained a starter because of his steady handle that could offset McLemore’s developing abilities off-the-dribble. But Mbah a Moute has shown himself to be a decent ball-handler and playmaker, as well.

“I think the more guys that we have who can make plays on offense is good for us,” Mbah a Moute said. “You know, guys who can drive and kick, make plays for others. (I’m) just trying to be a complete player offensively and that’s what I’ve always worked on and that’s what I’m trying to (contribute).”

The Kings have had a gaping hole at small forward now for several years. Not since the days of Ron Artest have they had a legitimate threat from the three. Mbah a Moute may not be the final answer. But as the team’s new regime works to rebuild this franchise from the ground up, he certainly fits in line with their vision.