Ray McCallum embraces role as change-of-pace defender for Sacramento Kings

Michael Malone has words for Kings guard Ray McCallum. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Practice has long been finished this Tuesday afternoon for the Sacramento Kings. It’s been maybe 15 or 20 minutes since they wrapped up their final workout session at home before hitting the road for a season-high seven-game road trip.

Some players remain on the court, hoisting up shots as a means to cool down on the five available hoops inside the Kings’ practice facility in Natomas. Ray McCallum, meanwhile, is nowhere close to cooling down. Instead, the 22-year-old rookie has started an impromptu game of one-on-one against one of his veteran teammates, talented small forward Rudy Gay.

The contest between the two is light, not intense. However, McCallum uses the opportunity to hold his own against Gay, who towers over his first-year teammate with a five-inch height advantage. Gay’s length also poses a challenge for McCallum on offense, but not on defense. Knowing he’s at a disadvantage size-wise, the rookie guard shrinks the gap between he and Gay while Gay has possession. He moves his feet with purpose, staying in front of the fluid forward near top of the key. Gay can’t get by McCallum, so he decides to settle for a long jumper.

Clank. The ball bounces off the backside of the basket.

Gay is too good offensively to let his 6-foot-3 teammate stop him every time. But on three possessions that this writer managed to take note of, McCallum plays Gay tough enough to force him into two bad shots from the perimeter.

It’s moments like this that the rookie guard has used to improve his game in his first NBA season. He played sparingly at the start of the year, but he’s now getting the opportunity to showcase what he’s learned from the sidelines as the Kings close out their 2013-14 schedule – particularly on defense.

“I think he’s got good instincts,” Kings head coach Michael Malone said of the first-year guard out of Detroit Mercy before his team hit the road last week. “And I think to be a good defensive player, you have to have the physical tools, but more importantly you have to have a mindset to go out there and stop guys and take pride in that. And I think Ray McCallum is a guy that takes pride in trying to shut his opponent down. So very good instincts, pretty good intelligence and a desire to be a heck of a defensive player.”

McCallum may have good defensive instincts, but he’s also found a way to build on that foundation. Before the rookie guard recently became a fixture in the Kings’ rotation, he spent plenty of time on the bench just watching the game with a critical eye.

McCallum didn’t let his lack of minutes deter him from watching film and analyzing scouting reports in order to have a better understanding of his opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. As a coach’s son, it’s probably no surprise that the 22-year-old guard is well aware of how important it is to sharpen his mental approach to the game, especially on defense.

“When you sit down on the bench, I kind of treat that as watching film,” McCallum told Cowbell Kingdom before the Kings went on the road. “And (so I) just kind of watch and learn how players play. Coming off the bench, I get some of their tendencies. When I go out there, I have the chance to go out and guard them (so) I kind of know what they want to do.”

McCallum has taken his role off the bench in stride. Last year’s 36th overall pick knows that the Kings don’t need anyone else trying to play hero ball for this team. McCallum, instead, has bought into the idea of being a change-of-pace defender, something the Kings have lacked in their backcourt this season.

Squaring off against a player like Gay in practice has been a blessing for McCallum’s development. It’s also been a boon to have Isaiah Thomas pushing him to his defensive limits, as well. Thomas has become a reliable scorer in his third NBA season, averaging just about 20 points per night this year. McCallum believes he’s benefited from facing off against a rising talent at his position.

“I’m guarding Isaiah Thomas every day in practice and that’s definitely a tough matchup,” McCallum said. “Was guarding Jimmer earlier this year, guard Rudy sometimes, Derrick (Williams) and Ben (McLemore). Play a lot of one-on-one, a lot of three-on-three. Maybe that’s what it is.”

McCallum’s defensive abilities haven’t gone unnoticed by teammates, including Thomas. The Kings’ starting point guard says that McCallum’s strong showing on defense starts with his ability to stay in front of his man.

“He just keeps his guy in front of him,” the 25-year-old guard said of what’s impressed him about McCallum’s defensive contributions through 27 games this season. “He’s quick, good at sliding his feet. He’s not like a big steals guy, but he’s not going to get blown by. He knows the coverages. His IQ is very high for a young basketball player.”

As a team, the Kings still have a long way to go before they get to where their head coach would ideally like them to be. Changing a culture doesn’t happen overnight, especially for a team that’s experienced as much change as this one. However, McCallum appears to be the right kind of player Michael Malone needs as he attempts his defensive overhaul of the franchise.

“Just go out there and compete and play hard,” McCallum said when asked about his late-season success on defense. “That’s one thing. On defense, as long as you play hard, good things will come your way. I just take that challenge on to be on one of the best defenders on this team.”

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About: Jonathan Santiago

Jonathan Santiago serves Cowbell Kingdom as senior editor specializing in writing, podcasting and video production. He also handles the majority of CK’s day-to-day beat coverage of the Kings.