Sacramento Kings youngsters look to finish season strong
With the coming of spring, flowers bloom and baseball season gears up for its opening day. But for lottery-bound NBA teams, it’s time to unleash the young talent.
Despite or because of their typical flaws, they need ample playing time. Some may think of it as tanking and that wouldn’t be unfair given the upcoming draft’s expected depth, but above all, this is the time of the season for teams to allow their youngsters the room to grow.
And how do players grow? They grow by making mistakes and subsequently learning from them.
It’s been evident for a while that the 2013-14 Sacramento Kings aren’t making their first playoff appearance in eight years. Even so, yet another postseason absence became official just over a week ago.
Right after the trade deadline passed, first-year Kings head coach Michael Malone made it known that he’d like to carve out more court time for four of his guys: Ben McLemore, Derrick Williams, Ray McCallum and Carl Landry. Landry, the lone veteran of the four, would only play three more games before being shut down for the year with a torn meniscus in his right knee. The other three are either 22 or younger.
Each of their situations is clearly different. With McLemore, the Kings’ seventh overall pick, much is expected, but his offensive play has been inconsistent during his rookie campaign.
Similarly, expectations were high with Williams, the No. 2 pick in 2011, but in his third season, some have already branded him a bust after failing to produce since leaving the University of Arizona. Still just 22 years old, the Kings recognize obvious potential, but at the same time, aren’t building around the young forward.
Finally, McCallum, the son of a college head coach, Ray Sr., is a second-round pick. Compared to the other two, expectations for him are muted, but Malone would like to use the remainder of the season to both assess and develop McCallum’s talent at point guard.
After spending much of the season on the bench, Malone has played McCallum 15 minutes or more in 11 of the Kings’ last 16 games. Over 13 games in March, the rookie point guard is averaging 21.8 minutes per game and starting to acclimate himself, both to the pro game and his teammates.
“Anytime I’m out there on the court playing with everyone,” says McCallum, “(I) obviously get a feel for everyone’s game. Being a point guard, kind of finding the spots where guys like the ball on the floor. Each game, I’m starting to feel more comfortable.”
As a point guard, there’s the added responsibility of orchestrating plays and facilitating for teammates. Even though McCallum is a 22-year-old rookie and guys like DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay are established NBA veterans, Malone says he must show leadership on the court regardless of age and inexperience.
“I want Ray to go out there and be vocal and be a leader and run his team, and that’s his greatest challenge as a young point guard,” Malone says. “If he’s out there with Rudy and DeMarcus, that’s a challenge for him because now instead of deferring to them, no, be vocal. You run your team. Get them where you want them to be.
“So it’s not just about what’s good for Ray,” Malone adds. “It’s what’s good for who’s out there and how I can get my teammates and put them in a position to have success.”
McCallum says starting point guard Isaiah Thomas, who is only 25 and in his third NBA season, has been invaluable to the rookie’s early improvement, constantly pulling him aside and giving him tips.
As a result of Thomas’ right quad contusion, McCallum filled in for his mentor in the Kings’ starting lineup Wednesday night against the New York Knicks. In the point guard’s first career start, he struggled from the field, going 3-of-14, but played 43 minutes and recorded six rebounds, five assists and a steal.
As far as Malone is concerned, Williams and McLemore are at their best when they’re attacking the basket, earning free-throw trips and not hesitating when presented with open jumpers.
“Derrick’s best games this year have been when he’s been in attack mode,” his coach says. “But when he plays, just like Ben, to his athleticism and doesn’t just settle, I think he becomes such a much better player and he helps us so much more.
“When he just settles for a jump shot and is passive with it and hangs around the perimeter, well there’s a lot of guys that can do that. What sets him apart and why he was the No. 2 pick is because of his athleticism, his versatility – I don’t want him being that guy that’s just on the perimeter.”
Unfortunately, Williams has not been aggressive as of late. In 11 of his last 12 games, the 6-foot-8 forward has attempted five or fewer shots. On Sunday, against the lowly Bucks, Williams scored just two points in 24 minutes. He failed to make a single shot, and two of his three attempts were from beyond the arc.
“I think everybody wants more shots,” Williams admits. “We have good players on this team that can score the ball, so you gotta find other ways to affect the game.”
Malone jokes that Sacramento should schedule more games in Minnesota, because since joining the Kings, Williams has turned in two phenomenal performances in his former arena, averaging 21.0 points and 8.0 rebounds.
If we exclude Williams’ last game in Minnesota from his monthly stats, he’s shooting a miserable 34.8 percent and averaging fewer than five points per contest over the other 12 March games.
McLemore, on the other hand, has begun to turn around his subpar rookie season.
“I’m definitely more comfortable,” says McLemore. “Especially when you see shots falling down, you get more comfortable.”
And the shots are falling at a better rate for the former Kansas Jayhawk. Although McLemore’s long-range accuracy for March remains below 32 percent (not good for anyone, let alone a player known for his smooth outside shot), he is shooting 43.9 percent from the field, easily the best mark of his pro career.
McLemore’s two-point percentage is 55.0 percent this month, while it was 42.1, 39.5, 39.3, and 33.9 in November, December, January, and February, respectively. If his rookie shooting guard can continue the improved shooting, Malone will be a happy man, as he’s used the “c” word all season with regard to McLemore.
While McLemore’s shot has improved along with his playing time, which has increased from 25.1 minutes in February to 29.6 per game this month, he has also seen a sizable increase in fouls committed. This month, he’s fouling 3.2 times per game.
And on the other end, McLemore still hasn’t found a way to get to the free-throw line, where he shoots a reliable 81.5 percent. In fact, McLemore’s failure to get to the charity stripe more often has been a constant source of frustration for Malone.
“The one game I played him 50 minutes, he had zero free-throw attempts,” says Malone. “He’s gotta be a guy – that young, that explosive, that athletic, I’ve said it many times – he should not be just a jump shooter. He’s gotta look to attack that basket, get to the rim and get to the foul line.”
It’s the time of year for new beginnings.
Can Derrick Williams start to resurrect his career – one seemed destined for stardom? Will Ray McCallum continue his improvement just 34 games into his pro career? What about Ben McLemore, the No. 7 pick? Will he find a way to more closely resemble the McLemore who played for Kansas last season?
Whose flowers will bloom this spring, and whose will perish? Eleven games remain, as we await these answers.