Ray McCallum takes advantage of late season opportunity

Ray McCallum during a break in action against the Golden State Warriors. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

The journey of rookie Ray McCallum has not been an easy one.  He has played a total of 201 minutes over 23 games in his first NBA season and even made a couple of trips to Reno to play for the Bighorns of the Development League.  It has been filled with lows, but now there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Taken with the 36th overall selection in the 2013 NBA Draft, the Kings guaranteed the first two years of the 22-year-old guard’s contract and have an option for a third season at less than a million dollars.  He was a low-price gamble for a small-school prospect with big-time pedigree.

The former McDonald’s All-American chose to play with his father, Ray Sr., at the University of Detroit Mercy, turning down big-name programs like Arizona and UCLA.  It was a decision that most likely cost him the money and security of a first-round pick.

Sacramento has taken a cautious approach to developing McCallum.  He has watched a lot more than he’s played, but that’s not a bad thing.  When the Kings could squeeze him in for a few minutes here and there, they did.  And when they wanted him to get real minutes, they sent him to Reno with specific instructions.

“Ray was excellent when he came down to Reno for his two stints,” Bighorns head coach Joel Abelson told Cowbell Kingdom.  “He is long, athletic, can defend at a high level, score and run a team.

“The longer he was in Reno, the better he got,” Abelson added.  “He’s showing what he can do now on the NBA level and I’m excited to watch Ray continue to improve.”

Over his seven total games with the Bighorns, McCallum averaged 20.0 points, 4.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game, while shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from 3-point land.

Seven games is a small sample size, especially when broken up into two separate blocks.  While his numbers where better in his three games in November, the Bighorns went 0-3.  The second time around, McCallum drew rave reviews and Reno went 3-1 with him at the helm.

He showed improved court vision, awareness and was more willing to involve his teammates in his four-game stretch in January.  The growth was noticeable.

McCallum is the test subject for the Kings’ new regime and its hybrid affiliation with the Bighorns.  He was the first player that general manager Pete D’Alessandro entrusted to Abelson and after the latest results, he probably won’t be the last.

When the Sacramento Kings bought out Jimmer Fredette, a door opened for the former Detroit Titans star.  The early results have been extremely impressive.

“Ray McCallum, for me, is growing up in front of our eyes,” coach Michael Malone said.  “The last couple of games, (he’s played) meaningful minutes, making big plays, showing no fear, stepping in (and) making big shots. Even if he didn’t make a couple, the fact that he steps in with no hesitation, I love that.”

The numbers don’t jump off the page, but numbers don’t always tell the entire story.  In his last four games, McCallum is averaging 7.5 points and four assists per game in just under 25 minutes a night.  While McCallum is shooting just 33.3 percent from the field, he has hit 4-of-7 (57 percent) from behind the arc during that stretch.

“He’s been incredible,” DeMarcus Cousins said following the Kings’ win over the Pelicans.  “He’s got his chance now.  I mean, he’s worked the whole season.  He’s gotten his chance to play and he’s come out there and made some big plays for the team.  I’m happy for him.”

McCallum has shown incredible poise, even in crunch time.  Malone has used him as both a point guard running the team and off the ball alongside Isaiah Thomas.  He can handle the ball, take players off the dribble and is hardly ever out of position.  He has a maturity to his game that is seldom seen in a rookie with so little experience.

“I went down to the D-League, played down there a couple games and took it as a challenge to go out there and perform at a high level,” McCallum said.  “You know, I thought I did pretty well, continued to work hard every day in practice and now towards the end of the season, I’m getting a lot more opportunity.  (I’m) just trying to go out there and make the best of it and just play my game and try to help the team out as much as I can.”

More than any one specific tool that McCallum brings to the table, he has proven to be different than any of the Kings’ other guards this season.  He has an understanding of the offense, but he’s especially thrived on the defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, McCallum is big enough to guard either guard position and he is surprisingly athletic.

“It’s not just him grasping defensive concepts. I think Ray McCallum is a very good defensive player,” Malone said.  “He knows how to use his body.  He’s fairly strong.  He’s a much better athlete than people realize and he has the ability to move his feet and contain the basketball, which is something that, obviously, we’ve struggled with at times this year.”

While fellow rookie Ben McLemore has often looked lost on both ends of the floor, McCallum has a methodical, under-control feel to his game.  He is a coach’s son that plays with a refinement that comes with years of drills and training.

“I just said, ‘I’m so proud of you,’” Malone said of what he told the rookie following the team’s win over New Orleans on Monday.  “I said, you’ve grown up and all your hard work this whole year – every day I said, ‘Keep on working, Ray, you’re going to get your opportunity,’ he never hung his head.  Never felt sorry for himself.  (He) continued to work hard and learn and now he’s putting all of that to good use.  It’s just a great story.  I’m excited about who he is and who he’s becoming right in front of our eyes.”

McCallum has played his way into the rotation and according to people in the know, he is quickly being thought of as more than just a rookie getting a look at the end of a losing season.  As he continues to get comfortable in the Kings’ system, expect McCallum to show more of his ever-expanding game.  For now, it looks as though Sacramento has found another second-round diamond in the rough.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also provides game day coverage for NBA.com and is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary "Small Market, Big Heart".