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NBA AM: Kings’ Youth Provides Hope For Brighter Future

After missing the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, the Kings are hoping that an infusion of young talent will turn things around in Sacramento.

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Young Core of Talent Gives Sacramento Hope for the Future

The Sacramento Kings have not made it to the playoffs since the 2005-06 NBA season. Back then, players like Mike Bibby, Brad Miller, Peja Stojakovic and Metta World Peace (then Ron Artest) were still on the team, which was led by now retired head coach Rick Adelman.

Since that last trip to the playoffs, the Kings have had five different head coaches, including Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus, Paul Westphal, Keith Smart and now Mike Malone and got a new owner in Vivek Ranadivé. Malone, entering his second year with the team, leads a young roster headlined by veteran small forward Rudy Gay and star center DeMarcus Cousins.

Entering his fourth season, Cousins is far and away the most talented player on the roster, but often times overshadows his talent with his short-temper and on-court confrontations with opposing players and referees. This season, Cousins will need to take a major step toward focusing his attention and effort solely on basketball and setting an example for the rest of his young, talented teammates.

Two of those young teammates are Ben McLemore, picked seventh overall in last year’s NBA draft, and Ray McCallum, selected 36th overall. McLemore is a very talented shooting guard with good size and athleticism. However, McLemore was inconsistent in his rookie season, averaging just 8.8 points, 2.9 rebounds and one assist per game on 37.6 percent shooting from the field and 32 percent shooting from beyond-the-arc. Part of the problem for McLemore is he plays out of control at times, rather than letting the game come to him.

“Ben is a really good player,” teammate Ray McCallum told Basketball Insiders. “One thing that I’ve seen this year… he’s really slowing down. Ben can play out of control sometimes, but when he really slows down and really locks in and focuses he can play his game and he can play really well and he’s knocking down shots, he’s finishing at the rim, he’s getting to the free-throw line, which is big for him and is big for this team. If he continues to keep playing like he is and growing like he is each day, he’s going to help us out a lot.”

McLemore, who struggled early in the Vegas Summer League, knows this is an issue for him, but he is finding his way.

“Beginning of the Summer League I struggled a little bit in the first two games,” McLemore said.  “I’ve just been watching film, just seeing the little mistakes I’ve been doing. I was just so anxious, trying to slow things down for me, and these last couple of games I’ve been slowing down, letting the game come to me, having my own pace.

“I think I was just, like, so anxious, just going out there and playing and moving so fast, not playing the game like I was during the second half of the season in [Sacramento], and I just had to go back to that comfort zone to what I’ve been doing throughout the season, and just playing myself, playing my game, going out there and being comfortable, being consistent, you know little things like that.”

In addition to timing and letting them game come to him, McLemore is working on finishing around the basket, something he struggled with last season.

“Just working around the basket, working on my finishing moves, little things like that, and it’s been helping me a lot, especially going against bigs, going down there, just one-dribble pull-ups, little things like that and also just attacking,” McLemore said. “That’s the biggest thing right there– attacking. I’m doing it on a more consistent basis right there, attacking the basket, trying to get to the free throw line.”

McLemore will also benefit from having a year of experience under his belt and a better sense of how he fits in Coach Malone’s system.

“I feel more comfortable since I got in the league,” McLemore said. “I feel more comfortable, confident in my shot. I’m trying to get more consistent, especially playing that two-guard position. Just being more consistent with my shot, driving to the basket, going to the free-throw line, rebounding the ball a little bit more, playing better defense.

“I think I learned so much, just all-around game, just learned how to play the game, and then I’m still learning as the year goes on, but at the same time I learned just the pace of the game and the flow of the game.”

McLemore’s standing with the team was called into question on draft night when the Kings selected shooting guard Nik Stauskas from the University of Michigan eighth overall. However, the team believes that Stauskas and McLemore can play together, a combo that was on display at the Vegas Summer League. When asked about the potential of playing next to Stauskas, McLemore was confident that they can make it work.

“Definitely,” McLemore said. “I mean, everybody’s been saying throughout this whole Summer League that we’ve been playing good together.”

“For the most part we’ve been playing together out here in Summer League, so I think things have been going pretty well so far,” Stauskas addded.

McCallum also recognizes that Stauskas’ skill-set makes him a good fit for the Kings, despite the fact that he plays the same position as McLemore.

“Nik’s been great for us,” McCallum said. “Obviously he’s a great shooter, and he’s pretty versatile. He can put the ball down on the floor, make plays for others. And he’s a competitor, a tough kid. He’s going to be great for our team.”

While Stauskas is a competitor, there will be a learning curve he will have to overcome as a rookie. One of the biggest differences from playing in college to the pros, according to Stauskas, is the increased physicality.

“It’s really just the physicality is the one part you have to adjust to,” Stauskas said. “Guys are a lot stronger, and that just comes with embracing the physicality and getting stronger.”

In addition, like McLemore, Stauskas will have to learn how to operate within Coach Malone’s system. For now, Malone is telling Stauskas to just be who he is, and to play his game.

“Just be aggressive when I have my opportunities,” Stauskas said, “and kind of lock into the team defensive concepts. Those are the main things [that Coach Malone has emphasized so far]. Just to stay aggressive and play my game. I’m still having trouble finding my spots out here at times, but I just go to be patient with it.”

While McLemore and Stauskas showed promise playing alongside one another in the Summer League, they will likely only be able to play alongside one another effectively for short periods of time during the regular season. Darren Collison, who was acquired as a free agent to replace former Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas, will handle the majority of the ball-handling duties for the Kings, but will be backed up by McCallum, who showed an improved game and leadership qualities while leading the Kings to the Summer League Championship.

McCallum feels he has grown a lot as player since entering the league last season.

“[I have] a better understanding for the game,” McCallum said. “Just being a true point guard, just being vocal and trying to be a true leader out there and running my team. Last year, Ben and I being rookies, our team was full of rookies actually last year, none of us had any experience. And just to take all the playing time, and the confidence and everything I learned this past season, take it in Summer League and trying to continue to get better and try to win.

“Just slowing down, making my reads, finding guys, controlling tempo around the offense, being vocal, being aggressive as well, knocking down the open shot, working on my midrange, the pick-and-roll, finishing around the rim. I mean a lot of things, I had a lot of areas in my game where I wanted to improve, and I feel like I’ve gotten stronger in that area. But for this team, this Summer League, I’m just trying to be a leader and just run the team and make sure we win.”

With Thomas joining the Phoenix Suns, McCallum will likely have more opportunity this season to contribute.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to come in and establish myself, and show that I can help run the team,” McCallum said. “Just be out there, a true point guard, be aggressive on both ends of the floor and just try and help our team win.”

If Summer League was any indication, McCallum is well prepared to help the Kings win moving forward. In the final game against Houston, McCallum scored 29 points and hauled in nine rebounds. He also hit a running three pointer to beat the shot clock with 1:25 left in the game, putting the Kings ahead 69-65 and sealing the game.

With veterans like Gay on board for another season, and young talent in Cousins, McLemore, McCallum, Stauskas and others, the Kings are looking to turn things around in Sacramento and compete for a playoff spot in the tough Western Conference next season, which is no easy task.

“I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction, we have a lot of great new additions to the team,” McCallum said when asked about the Kings’ potential next season. “We got some older guys that have experienced some things, and we’re tired of losing and we want to come out there this year and play hard every night and just get better and just get the organization moving in the right direction.”

McLemore took it a step further. When asked if this upcoming year was the year that the Kings would end the drought and make it back to the playoffs, McLemore was optimistic.

“I mean, we’re going to do it,” McLemore said. “We’re going to work hard each and every day to get better and push for that.”

Perhaps next season won’t be the end of the Kings’ playoff drought considering how deep the Western Conference is, but with players like Cousins, McLemore, McCollum and Stauskas on board, there is reason to believe that brighter days are ahead for the Sacramento Kings.

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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