Ray McCallum’s late-season surge reinforces hope in future with Sacramento Kings

Ray McCallum announced in the Sacramento Kings' starting lineup. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Long before he came to Sacramento, Pete D’Alessandro already had his eyes on Ray McCallum. After his freshman year at Detroit Mercy, McCallum caught the attention of Mike Bratz, then working with the Kings general manager in Denver.

“We gotta watch this guy. There’s something there in this kid,” D’Alessandro remembered the now-Kings assistant general manager telling him some two to three years ago.

Playing under-the-radar at Detroit Mercy, he was one of college basketball’s best kept secrets. McCallum was a coach’s son and former McDonald’s All-American who bypassed opportunities at big-name schools like Arizona and UCLA to play for his father and the Titans.

McCallum’s talent didn’t just impress Bratz. It also impressed former St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca, another man whose opinion D’Alessandro holds with high regard. One of D’Alessandro’s first gigs in the basketball world came as a video coordinator for Carnesecca while attending school at St. John’s.

With glowing opinions from two highly astute basketball minds, D’Alessandro kept tabs on McCallum, all the way up until the 2013 NBA Draft. Though the 22-year-old’s second-round selection by the Kings last year may have been a shock to their fans, it turned out to make complete sense for a franchise in the midst of a major reboot.

Like fellow rookie Ben McLemore, McCallum’s first year had its peaks and valleys. There are fewer expectations for a second-round pick, but that doesn’t mean that McCallum didn’t face the same kind of mental hurdles and challenges that McLemore, a lottery pick, encountered during his first NBA season.

“It went extremely fast,” McCallum said of his first year in the NBA following the Kings’ last game against the Phoenix Suns last month. “Ben and I were just talking about it today. It felt like we were just at training camp a couple weeks ago. This season really went by fast, but great learning experience. Had a great time and it was a lot of fun.”

McCallum started the year on the bench, most of the time in a suit as opposed to in uniform. In the Kings’ first 40 games of the season, McCallum appeared in only nine of them and was inactive for 15 contests.  His lack of playing time led the Kings to option him to the D-League on two different occasions. McCallum kept his head up and didn’t complain, leading him to average 20.0 points and 4.3 assists over seven total games with the Reno Bighorns.

Come February, things started to quickly turn for McCallum. A deadline deal saw veteran guard Marcus Thornton traded to the Brooklyn Nets and not long after that, the Kings parted ways with former lottery pick Jimmer Fredette. A month later, an injury to starting point guard Isaiah Thomas finally gave McCallum the opportunity he waited so patiently to have.

“My dad always told me expect the unexpected and that’s something that finally happened this year that he’s really always preached my whole life,” McCallum said of his father, Detroit Titans head coach Ray McCallum Sr. “Coming out here, sitting and watching and learning and not really getting an opportunity. And then all year, he was telling me just be ready, just be patient and just stay ready and make the most of your opportunity. Then once I got that opportunity, I tried to make the most of it.”

The rookie point guard started nine contests in place of Thomas and went from practically zero to 48 minutes a night in a heartbeat. McCallum learned on the fly, but didn’t tire for the Kings while playing roughly 45 minutes per game in Thomas’ absence.

“Once I got the opportunity to go out there on the floor, (I) felt like each game I grew and I learned,” McCallum said. “Even though I might not have scored or had as many assists as the previous game, each and every game, I felt like a better player, more confident and having a better understanding of my game.”

The first outing of that nine-game stretch didn’t begin smoothly for the rookie point guard. Playing against the New York Knicks at home, McCallum got off to a horrendous start, scoring three points on an inefficient 1-of-10 shooting in the game’s first three quarters. McCallum would close the contest going an effective 3-of-5 from the field to score seven points in the final frame, but the Kings still lost to the visiting Knicks, 109-97.

Despite the defeat and spotty shooting night, McCallum still cherishes that game as moment to remember in his rookie season. After all, a player’s first NBA start happens only once in a career.

“Getting the opportunity, it kind of lets you know like, ‘Wow, it’s real,’ and you’re really here and you’re living in the moment that you always wanted and to go out there and try to make the most of it,” McCallum said of making his first career start.

McCallum’s rapid transition from limited to substantial minutes is not a feat easily accomplished in the NBA. Even though the Kings’ schedule was meaningless at that point in the season, how he kept himself prepared and ready earned him major kudos from coaches, teammates and front office staff.

“The thing that’s great about Ray is he stayed ready,” Kings head coach Michael Malone said of McCallum. “He stayed engaged and when he was given his opportunity, he took it and ran with it.”

It’s no wonder that the Kings have as much faith as they do in the 22-year-old guard’s NBA potential. After all, McCallum is living proof of the old adage: “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”

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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.