For months, Kings officials said they needed to see what Ray McCallum would do in game situations.
But McCallum, last years second-round pick, was at the bottom of the pecking order at point guard, so any significant on-court progress was seen only in practice or during stints with the Kings NBA Development League team, the Reno Bighorns.
Now with the chance to play, McCallum is becoming more than just a fill-in for Isaiah Thomas. Hes earning playing time with the first unit. Recently, McCallum has supplanted more heralded rookie Ben McLemore late in games.
McCallum has had moments where hes looked like a rookie, but hes done enough lately to earn the coaching staffs trust. He runs the team when Thomas is resting and plays alongside Thomas, too.
With the second unit when I come in, Im on the ball more and I can create and make more plays, McCallum said. With the first unit, Im off the ball. I always have a defensive mindset, but when Im out there with the first unit, its strictly to play defense and lock up. Try to find guys, but at the same time be aggressive. But with both groups, I feel comfortable and Im having fun.
McCallum is averaging 15 minutes in his past eight games, nearly double his season average of 8.1 in 22 games. He played a season-high 28 minutes in Saturdays loss to Minnesota.
I want to win every time we play, coach Michael Malone said. But at the same time, more important than that right now is allowing Ray to get these minutes. Ben is struggling right now, so were playing Ray and Isaiah out there together. These are valuable minutes for Ray.
In the past two games, McCallum has shown he can facilitate and take care of the ball (10 assists, one turnover), but he is still struggling to get on track offensively (6-for-18 shooting).
Whats helped McCallum is his willingness to play defense and run the team to free Thomas to be a scorer. Playing McCallum alongside Thomas is something Malone could do more the rest of the season.
By allowing Ray to handle the ball at times, that gets Isaiah off of it, Malone said. (Thomas) can space the floor and now we can get the defense moving so he can attack instead of just coming down and attacking a set defense.
McCallum said even though he wasnt playing much for most of the season, he always believed he could contribute.
Ive always had a lot of confidence in my game, McCallum said. Just to have an opportunity to get on the floor, it definitely helps. Being in there in close games down the stretch, being out there with those guys, it builds my confidence a lot. I just try to go out there and defend, do little things to try to keep myself on the floor.
McCallum realizes the task wont get any easier this season. Hes taking advantage of teams that are not familiar with his game. But with increased minutes, McCallum is learning how to break down NBA defenses, and that should help him as opponents adjust.
A lot of these teams dont really know who I am, so when I come in there, I just try to attack and look for the open guy, McCallum said. And Im realizing the more you attack the defense, guys are going to get open. Im playing with a lot of high-level guys, and theyre making it easy for me by knocking down shots.
The more McCallum does that, the more the Kings will like what they see.