Ben McLemore is one of a few Kings players who could use the final stretch of games to improve for next season.
The chance of qualifying for the postseason may have already gone out the window for the Sacramento Kings, but that doesn't mean the season's over. Far from it, actually. The stretch run will provide plenty of opportunities for players to distinguish themselves.
For some, it's pretty obvious. Inexperienced youngsters like Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum can use it as an opportunity for increased playing time, a chance to hone their games. For others like Carl Landry, who's coming back from injury, and Derrick Williams, the stretch run will allow them to get a basis for what needs to improve going forward.
In fact, head coach Mike Malone recently summed it up pretty well as far as how the team will utilize its final slate of games.
"Moving forward, we need to see Ray McCallum," Malone said. "We need to see Ben McLemore. We need to see Derrick Williams, Carl Landry, see what those guys bring to the table. Obviously we can look at what they need to work on moving forward and into the offseason."
As a team, the Kings can also use it as a chance to improve, a way to build some momentum going into next season.
"Obviously we can be that team that just goes out there and plays hard," Rudy Gay said. "Our backs are against the wall. We don’t really have too much to prove. We just have to go out there and play basketball, try and get as many wins as possible. We want to show progress with Coach Malone and with the new guys that are coming in. We just want to show progress."
That's the key for the Kings. They just need to use this as as chance to show progress, both as individual players, and more importantly, as a team.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.
All stats via Basketball-Reference, unless indicated otherwise.
Of all the players, Ray McCallum is probably the most obvious one.
First and foremost, he's a rookie. He needs every chance he can get to gain experience in the NBA. That'd be true of virtually every first-year player. Yet it's especially true of McCallum. That's because the point guard hasn't played much throughout the season.
Prior to the All-Star break, McCallum was only averaging 4.0 minutes per game, and he'd only appeared in 16 of the team's first 53 games. That figures to change considerably over the stretch run.
"He’s going to play a lot more," Malone said of McCallum. Part of the reason for that is simply that the Kings have nothing to lose. However, the rookie does bring some things to the table. Malone noted his defensive mindset, which God knows Sacramento could use more of.
When asked what he needs to work on, McCallum listed a host of things.
"Consistency, my overall game, just keeping things tight," McCallum said. "Obviously I’m just working on my shot. Just working on being a true point guard, running the team, mastering the pick-and-roll, just having a defensive mindset, bringing energy to the team in any way possible that I can."
Those are certainly a lot of things to address. But luckily the rookie should get enough playing time to do so.
Compared to McCallum, Derrick Williams has much more NBA experience. Yet the third-year player still hasn't fully tapped into the potential that made him the No. 2 pick in the draft back in 2011. Hopefully he can use the final stretch of games to do just that.
In a lot of ways, Williams is on the right track since coming to the Kings. His .536 free-throw rate is a career high, showing he's become more aggressive with the ball. That's a good sign, especially since he's adequate from the charity stripe.
He's also shooting three-pointers much less, as only 19.8 percent of his attempts are from downtown. That's probably a good thing. While he hit a ridiculous 56.8 percent of his threes during his last year in college, Williams has only made 29.5 percent of his 407 career three-pointers in the NBA. The forward has enough range to shoot it from there occasionally, but it shouldn't be a huge staple of his game.
He could also use this as a chance to work on his defense. Williams isn't an awful defender, but he needs to get better on that side of the ball. According to 82games.com, opposing 3s have a PER of 16.2 (15 is league average) and 4s have a PER of 18.4 against him. The Kings are short on good defenders, so if he can improve that aspect of his game down the stretch, it could open up even more playing time going forward.
Simply by virtue of being a rookie, Ben McLemore could use all the experience he can get. But while simply playing will help, the best way to utilize his time is to target a few specific areas. Luckily for the rookie, Malone pointed out some things he'd like to see improvement on during the rest of the season.
"Consistency," Malone said. "I think he has to lock in on defense. I think he’s getting there. He’s doing a better job. Then offensively, I want him to be a lot more consistent and a lot more aggressive offensively, not settling for jump shots. I think he has to get to the foul line. He’s too good of an athlete not to get to the foul line at least four or five times a game. For a young guy, he’s had an up-and-down season. My biggest thing is go out there, relax, be aggressive and show me that you can be a consistent player in the NBA."
In a lot of respects, McLemore and Malone are on the same page. The 21-year-old listed a lot of the same things when assessing areas for improvement.
"All-around game," McLemore said. "You know, defense, offense. You know, everything, ball-handling, shooting, just getting stronger, getting more quick, little things like that. Just to take my game even more to the next level to be ready for next year. Right now I’m just focused on finishing this year off."
Of the things listed between the two, aggressiveness and ball-handling are probably the most pertinent. Of course, the two are somewhat intertwined.
If McLemore can improve his ball-handling, he'll be able to create more opportunities for himself. Getting to the free-throw line with more regularity should really be a main focus. He's making 79.2 percent of his free throws, meaning he's a solid shooter from the stripe. Yet the rookie is only averaging 2.0 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. That needs to change.
We know McLemore can hit open jump shots. We also know he's immensely talented. He needs to use this chance to work on areas of his game that are more questionable. And with the starting job his and the team having nothing substantial to play for, there's absolutely no reason for him not to.
In the case of Carl Landry, it's simply about getting his sea legs back. The power forward missed the first few months of the season with an injury. He needs to use this as a chance to get back into the swing of things.
His offensive game has deteriorated considerably this season, largely due to a lack of rhythm. He's averaging a career-worst 2.5 free-throw attempts per 36 minutes. That's unacceptable for a player who spends most of his time close to the basket. Landry needs to get some of his aggressiveness back, and hopefully the rest of his game will follow.
For the amount of money the Kings are paying him, they need to see better results from the power forward. A lot of that is out of his hands right now because he missed so much time. But it'd really help his confidence if he had a strong showing down the stretch.
This isn't to imply Isaiah Thomas hasn't been shining all season long, because he certainly has. This is simply about one thing for "The Pizza Guy": distributing the ball.
We all know Thomas can score. He's demonstrated that every year in the NBA, albeit not with as much effectiveness as this season. Yet his abilities as a point guard are still a work in progress. He's getting better in this area, but there's still room to grow.
Thomas' assists percentage is a career-high 32.8 percent. That's solid, but it could be better. Of players who have played at least 300 minutes this season, Thomas is 19th in assist percentage. Some of the players ahead of him, like Stephen Curry, John Wall and Russell Westbrook, are still pretty prolific scorers. So IT can become a better distributor and still score plenty of points.
To point this out may be nit-picking. Thomas is already an above-average point guard. Yet by improving this one area of his game, he could go from above average to elite. And considering he's a restricted free agent and will get a considerable raise next year, the Kings would get much better bang for their buck if he elevated his abilities as a distributor.
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