With the Sacramento Kings opening their training camp this week, there will be no shortage of story lines and intrigue abound. How will Rajon Rondo fit? Can Willie Cauley-Stein make a difference right away? How is George Karl and DeMarcus Cousins’ relationship? Is Darren Collison 100% healthy? But perhaps the most compelling item to keep an eye on is who will join DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay in the starting lineup.
No article about the Sacramento Kings can be written without prominent mention of center DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins, who just turned 25, is fresh off his first All-Star berth and his gaudy 24 points and nearly 13 rebounds stat line easily place him among the the league’s elite. Joining Cousins is talented swingman Rudy Gay, manning the small forward position. Gay enjoyed his best season as a pro a year ago, from both an efficiency and production standpoint. Gay averaged 21 points, 6 rebounds and nearly 4 assists per contest.
The off-season departure of long time King Jason Thompson vacates a starting spot next to Cousins. The two contenders vying for the honor are 7 year pro Kosta Koufos and rookie Willie Cauley-Stein. Koufos would provide much needed experience and has outstanding defensive technique. His strength lies in his individual post defense as well as his understanding of team defense concepts. Kosta is a starting caliber center in the NBA without question, but has served as the primary backup to the Memphis Grizzlies’ supremely talented big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph the last two years. Koufos was the starting center for a 57 win Denver Nuggets team in 2012-13. His coach at the time? Current Kings coach George Karl.
What Willie Cauley-Stein lacks in experience, he makes up for with other worldly athleticism. Kings GM Vlade Divac specifically mentioned Cauley-Stein’s incredible foot speed as an integral reason why he drafted the Kentucky Wildcat. A quick twitch athlete with a 7’3″ wingspan and a relentless motor makes for quite an NBA prospect. One major concern with Willie is his offensive limitations, but playing alongside the best scoring big man in the NBA could very well make for a copacetic fit. Simply put, Sacramento doesn’t need him to score. The Kings are very high on Cauley-Stein as a building block of the franchise going forward.
Third year guard Ben McLemore, who has served as the starting shooting guard for the majority of his time in the pros, is the odds on favorite to retain the position. McLemore improved across the board statistically from his rookie to his sophomore year. His field goal percentage of 43% leaves room for improvement, but Ben is a capable three point shooter who has evolved into a plus defender. McLemore often garners the opposition’s toughest defensive assignment. His main competition at the two guard is former San Antonio Spur Marco Belinelli. In a lot of ways this position battle is similar to the Koufos/Cauley-Stein competition for the rights to starting center. Belinelli has the experience, but McLemore is far more athletic and offers more potential. Marco is one of the premiere three point shooters in the league today.
The most contentious positional battle is between the incumbent Darren Collison and new addition Rajon Rondo for starting point guard duties. Collison exceeded expectations in his first year with the Kings, averaging 16 points and nearly 6 assists in 45 games before a core muscle injury ended his season prematurely. Little doubt that Darren Collison enters camp with a massive chip on his shoulder, out to prove that the starting point guard duties should belong to him. Collison has ample experience as both the starting point guard and the first guard off the bench, and figures to thrive in either role.
Conversely, Rajon Rondo has started for the vast majority of his career. Despite extremely similar physical builds, their games present a dichotomy of playing styles for the Kings. Rondo is incredibly unselfish who will gladly pass up layups for a wide open jump shot for a teammate. Rondo is one of the least respected shooters in the NBA, thus hurting offensive spacing. Rajon has been on an All-NBA Defensive team on four separate occasions, but most analysts feel his defensive ability has regressed considerably. Darren Collison is a willing passer but doesn’t boast the vision or extreme unselfishness Rondo does. Collison is unquestionably the better shooter and scorer and likely a better defender. Rajon Rondo has had the better career, but most observers would opine that Darren Collison is the better player today.
Despite that, I feel the Kings will start Rajon Rondo because his game is better suited to play alongside elite scorers. I do anticipate Collison and Rondo logging a lot of minutes together, rendering the positional battle something of a moot point.
C Kosta Koufos
PF DeMarcus Cousins
SF Rudy Gay
SG Ben McLemore
PG Rajon Rondo