One of the things worth monitoring has been the progression of Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum in their first NBA training camp.
For three consecutive seasons, the Sacramento Kings have had a different head coach running training camp. This year it's Michael Malone. And with the new coach comes yet another new system to learn and a new staff to acquiesce to. Only this time, the feeling around the team is much more positive than its been in the past.
During the first week of camp, the coach has preached competition up and down the roster. Nobody's spot on the team is guaranteed, regardless of draft status, past experience or salary.
Yet amid all the competition, there has been a strong emphasis on teamwork and togetherness. Each player obviously wants as big a role on the team as possible, but it doesn't come at the detriment of the team or their positional counterparts.
We've also seen smaller changes associated with the switch in management that boost team morale. For the first time in years, there's a feeling that there is a level of professionalism around the Kings that actually resembles a real NBA franchise.
So while we're only one week into camp, and no meaningful games have been played—preseason or otherwise—things are already feeling different. And based on the recent past of the franchise, that's a very good thing.
Some starting spots that seemed locked in a month ago are now up for grabs. Most notably is point guard, with Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas duking it out for the right to be the starter. The conventional wisdom, which I also bought into wholeheartedly, was that Vasquez would be the starter and Thomas would come off the bench. That's not necessarily the case.
Just because Vasquez was brought in as part of the Tyreke Evans trade, it doesn't mean his starting job is guaranteed. And if there's one thing we've learned about Isaiah Thomas during his first two seasons, it's that you can never count him out. He went from the last pick in the 2011 draft to an impact player. After starting his first two years coming off the bench, the point guard made his way to the starting lineup by season's end each time.
First and foremost, the two are teammates. Said Vasquez, according to Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:
"I'm teammates with Isaiah, so if anybody in this league is going to say something about Isaiah, I'm going to step up for him because I'm his teammate," Vasquez said. "He's part of the family."
But family members also compete with each other, just as Thomas and Vasquez are. It started from the first day of practice and will continue throughout camp. But like family members, it's a friendly competition...one that isn't rooted in malice or wanting to see the other guy fail.
"What I loved (Tuesday) is you've got two highly competitive players fighting for a starting job on this team that pushed each other, but they pushed each other the right way," Malone said, also via Jason Jones.
"They weren't trying do anything dirty. … They helped each other off the floor, they were giving each other high-fives knowing, hey, this is competition.
"And no matter what happens at the end of the day, we have two very talented point guards, and hopefully they're going to lead us to a lot of wins this year."
It should go without saying that everything in the NBA is first class, from traveling arrangements, hotels and fine dining. But the Kings were living in a prehistoric era under the Maloofs, at least as far as the food was concerned.
That's no longer the case. With new owner Vivek Ranadive now at the helm, everything is first class, especially the food.
From Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee:
Isaiah Thomas said one big change under @vivek is the team has post practice meals, better food at facility
— Jason Jones (@mr_jasonjones) October 2, 2013
Anybody who has even basic knowledge of exercise knows the value of sleep and a proper diet. You need the sleep so your body can recover, and you need proper food so your body can repair itself and to provide ample energy.
The sleep factor is up to each individual. But when you're being provided food by the team, you don't have many options other than to eat what's available. Apparently under the Maloofs, either nothing was available to eat after practice or it wasn't very appealing if there was something.
Jason Jones provides an anecdote from when J.J. Hickson was on the Kings:
During Hickson's brief stint with the Kings during the 2011-12 season after being traded to Sacramento from Cleveland, he would often lament the lack of a quality meals after games, practices, etc.
It wasn't uncommon to hear Hickson say "When I was in Cleveland ...," and opine of the good old days when he played with LeBron James and the postgame spread was of the highest quality.
Vivek Ranadive spoke with several players about things they wanted to see improved and I'm sure this came up. It's also why the Kings will see improvements to other amenities around the practice facility and arena.
These are the subtle things that fans are unaware of. But beyond the tangible benefits of an improved diet, there's also the boost these things provide in morale. It's just one of many steps needed to change the culture.
Can you imagine what would have happened if Randy Moss played for the Kings?
Chris Mullin is 50 years old, has been out of the NBA for a decade-plus and is currently an adviser to Kings GM Pete D'Alessandro. The guy can also still knock 'em dead from three-point range.
After a practice this week at the UC Santa Barbara campus, where the Kings are holding training camp, the team hosted a players vs. students three-point contest. On the players side was Jimmer Fredette, DeMarcus Cousins and rookie Ben McLemore. On the other side were UCSB students, and joining them was Mullin, who was tabbed as a "16th year senior," according to Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee.
Fredette paced the Kings with 10 threes in 15 attempts, followed by Cousins with nine and McLemore with seven. But the Hall of Famer was the one who stole the show, as Mullin nailed 14 of his 15 three-point attempts.
The fact that Mullin—a career 38.4 percent three-point shooter—could still shoot a little wasn't surprising. But 14 of 15 threes? That's almost unheard of for current players, let alone a guy who's been out of the league for almost 15 years.
As the requisite marksman, if Fredette fails to find his touch, the Kings could always sign Mullin to a 10-day contract. We obviously know he can still light it up from downtown.
You only get one chance at a first impression. That's why it's so encouraging that Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum are making the most of the opportunity.
The two rookies are doing everything possible to improve, from putting in the necessary on-court work to staying mentally engaged throughout practice.
Shooting guard Marcus Thornton, McLemore's main competition for the starting 2-guard spot, has noticed the rookie's dedication. According to Thornton, the 20-year-old is already ahead of where the Bayou Bomber was at during his rookie year. That's a good sign considering Thornton averaged 14.5 points as a rookie.
"Ben is a sponge," Thornton said, per The Sacramento Bee. "He's asking questions, (doing) things I didn't do my rookie year. So for him to have a heads-up, getting to know the plays … and if he (doesn't know), he'll come to the side and ask me. That's a plus for Ben. The sky's the limit for him."
One of the things McLemore is working on is his ability to score off the dribble. That was one of the knocks on him entering the draft...he wasn't a great ball-handler. Head coach Mike Malone has already noticed a drastic improvement since summer league.
"His ability to make plays off the dribble, which he did not do a great job of in summer league … has gotten so much better," Malone said, via The Sacramento Bee. "Now he can make a play off the bounce; he's making some really good passes with his understanding of the game."
McCallum has also had a strong camp. In fact, it's one of the better showings of anyone on the team.
His main focal points have been his defense and passing ability, which he feels are areas he can make an immediate impact for the Kings.
"I'm just trying to be a good defender and a true point guard," McCallum said. "Those are two attributes to my game that can help this team. I can be a good on-the-ball defender, getting steals, trying to rebounds on the defensive end. And when I get the ball offensively, push."
There's no room for complacency on the Kings. Everyone has something to improve. And how they perform in training camp could be a determining factor in their future with the Kings.
For a lot of players, this is a make-or-break year. Either they're in the last years of their contracts before free agency, or in the case of players heading into restricted free agency, like Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas, they're playing for a chance at a potential extension prior to the Oct. 31 deadline.
General manager Pete D'Alessandro is also with the team in training camp. While he's not too involved in the coaching side of things, preferring to give Malone and his staff some space, he's spending his time evaluating the roster.
”We have some guys that are trying to make this team too, so we’re evaluating,” D’Alessandro said, per Cowbell Kingdom. “This is a tryout for some guys. And I’m also looking for the guys that we have and we have decisions to make, some Oct. 31st decisions we have, so there’s a lot of evaluation. I spend a lot of time actually with Mike Bratz in the evenings and we talk about a lot of these things.”
Everything needs to be earned with their play on the court. None of them, with the exception of Cousins, should feel like their place on the team is cemented. But if they perform well, they'll be rewarded. And since D'Alessandro is at practices getting a firsthand look, he'll be in a good place to make proper decisions.
On competition, San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh is fond of saying, "Iron sharpens iron." In other words, stiff in-team competition makes everyone better. The Kings are going into training camp with the same approach.
It was previously mentioned that Thomas and Vasquez are battling for the starting point guard spot. Yet competition is rampant. DeMarcus Cousins will be the starting center. Every other spot is still up for grabs. However, that's the way the players like it.
”That’s what’s making it so much better,” Cousins said of the training camp competition, per Cowbell Kingdom. ”Everybody has a fair chance to start and they come in here competing, nobody is backing down. And that’s what we need. We’re getting each other better.”
This competitive spirit keeps everyone on their toes. Beyond that, it has other intangible values. Most notably, it'll prepare the Kings for the regular season. As Mike Malone points out, the Kings simply aren't talented enough, or seasoned enough, to skate through games. Every win will take 100 percent commitment.
”Today, they did a much better job with their focus, their attention to detail and getting through it,” the Kings head coach said (also via Cowbell Kingdom). ”Having one good practice is nice, but we’re nowhere good to be a team that can try to turn it on and turn it off.”
By never allowing the players to relax in practice, they'll have the correct mentality when it comes time to actually playing the games. Too many times in past years we'd see a lackadaisical attitude from the team. That's no longer acceptable, and Malone is trying to nip it in the bud before it even starts to take root.
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