A year ago, Darren Collison was trumpeted as the Kings’ new starting point guard who would help change the way the team played. This year, he’s filling just as important a role, even though he no longer starts.
Collison leads Sacramento’s revamped second unit. Among the positives from Wednesday night’s 111-104 season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Clippers was that the Kings’ bench met expectations.
Of the many deficiencies the Kings needed to address during the offseason, developing a respectable second unit was among the biggest. With 13 points, six assists and only one turnover, Collison helped the bench rally the Kings from a 15-point deficit and keep Sacramento in the game against the Clippers after a sluggish start.
“You look at some of the best teams in the NBA, and they have a good bench,” Collison said. “I think Golden State has one of the best benches in the league. ... That’s what it’s going to take, not just your starting lineup but a real good bench. It seems nowadays a good bench is players who can start and can contribute at the same time.”
The Kings’ second unit played with the pace and ball movement that coach George Karl wants. Collison and Marco Belinelli came off the bench to combine for 13 assists, more than the entire starting lineup (11).
“Our bench unit, we kind of have a positive mindset,” Collison said. “We get in there and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Omri Casspi had nine rebounds, second on the Kings behind DeMarcus Cousins’ 13 on Wednesday, in 20 minutes. Veteran Caron Butler played sparingly in the preseason but chipped in eight points.
“The second unit did a good job (Wednesday),” Cousins said. “Brought us back, brought some energy.”
The second unit will look slightly different Friday night at Sleep Train Arena when the Kings host the rival Los Angeles Lakers. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein will start, and Kosta Koufos will come off the bench.
Still, Collison is the catalyst for the reserves. Since the start of last month’s training camp, coaches and teammates have praised his play. He was relegated to the bench after the Kings signed Rajon Rondo, but Karl repeatedly has cited Collison as the best player on the court in practices and during the preseason.
“I just want to win,” Collison said. “All that stuff doesn’t really matter to me. I’m going to give 110 percent regardless.”
With Casspi the only reserve back from 2014-15, it’s unfair to compare this season’s bench to last year’s group. But the consensus is the Kings will not have a major drop in production when the starters rest.
Collison and Belinelli will be counted on to close out games with starters many nights. Koufos’ defense and experience will be needed when he’s not starting so there will not be unnecessary pressure on Cauley-Stein.
“And look, it’s not just always going to be the bench getting in there and giving a spark,” Collison said. “Sometimes the starters are going to do their thing and the bench is going to slack off. We don’t want it to happen that way, but it goes back and forth.
“But I think we have a good thing going on with the bench unit, and it’s been working out thus far.”