Darren Collison signed with the Kings before last season primarily because he was guaranteed the starting point guard position. But so much for sales jobs and guarantees.
Forty-five games into last season – the worst year of his career, he says – the former UCLA speedster suffered a severe abdominal strain that required season-ending surgery.
Then things snowballed. The Kings hired a new coach, brought in a new general manager, overhauled the front office and punctuated an extremely active summer by signing another point guard.
Except Rajon Rondo, 29, is more than just another point guard. When healthy and given the freedom to orchestrate an offense, the former Boston Celtics star who led his team to an NBA title in 2008 is among the league’s premier passers and defenders.
Collison has a few choices. He can feel jilted by the organization and sulk. He can surprise more than a few folks and win the starting position during training camp. Or he can accept the likely outcome – that he backs up Rondo – and respond with his typical class, grace and professionalism.
My thoughts are, ‘Just try to be the best player I can be for this team. Go out and do my thing.’ Rondo is going to make everybody better. You talk about his experience with Boston, with Doc Rivers, and he’s going to bring that to our team.
Darren Collison, on the offseason signing of point guard Rajon Rondo
This is an easy one. Collison, 28, is too ferocious a competitor to roll over. Of course he wants to start. But he wants to win even more.
“My thoughts are, ‘Just try to be the best player I can be for this team. Go out and do my thing,’ ” Collison said after the opening practice of training camp Tuesday at UC San Diego. “Rondo is going to make everybody better. You talk about his experience with Boston, with Doc Rivers, and he’s going to bring that to our team.”
Admittedly, Collison’s philosophical approach has been influenced by a dreadful 2014-15 season that often left him depressed. Besides playing on a losing team for the first time in his career, the timing of the injury prevented any chance of auditioning for incoming head coach George Karl.
Though the official on-court introduction was delayed several months, both sound upbeat about the possibilities and the backcourt versatility. Karl refuses to see players as identical widgets on an assembly line; for months he has been planning experiments with a small backcourt that occasionally features Rondo (6-foot-1) and Collison (6-0), capitalizing on Rondo’s superior passing and playmaking and Collison’s much-improved outside shot.
16.1 Kings guard Darren Collison’s career-best scoring average before he was injured
Though Collison undoubtedly would lose to veteran sharpshooter Marco Belinelli in a long-distance shootout, Collison was averaging career highs last year in points (16.1), field-goal percentage (46.5), steals (1.49) and minutes (34.8) before he landed awkwardly in a Feb. 5 game against Dallas.
“The two point guard backcourt seems to be the recipe for teams for success,” Collison said, “so that’s something we have in our back pocket. And (Karl’s offense) fits my style. Coach talks about space, about speed. Those things are easy for me. Those things are in my genetics. Not being able to run, to move around after my injury, was really tough. The doctors told me I should have had the surgery years ago, back when I was with Indiana. The tightness, the injury was always there. But I can’t remember when I’ve felt this good.”
Long after most of the Kings had gathered their belongings Tuesday, Collison and Rondo continued shooting jumpers. With assistant coach Nancy Lieberman retrieving balls and motioning the players to spots, Karl observed from the sidelines.
“Darren impressed me with his shooting,” Karl said. “This is the first time I’m really getting a live look at him. This could get interesting.”
To prevent further injury, Collison will adhere to a strict post-practice exercise and training routine. After shooting, he laid on the gym floor and rolled a ball up and down his left side. Moments later, he was summoned to the training table, where Kings trainer Pete Youngman probed his stomach and abdominal muscles to enhance flexibility and blood flow.
“It’s all good,” Collison said. “We all know Rondo’s passing skills. He’s going to get you the ball where it needs to be. He’s going to make my job a lot easier. Besides, he’s a good dude.”
Asked which of the speedy point guards prevails in a 100-meter dash, Collison, whose parents were world-class sprinters, shook his head.
“Rajon is quick,” he said, laughing, “but I don’t know if he is faster than me. We’ll just have to see.”