Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: As starter, McCallum making a point to Kings

Ray McCallum has certainly made the Kings’ backcourt situation more interesting. In a region known for its farm-to-fork phenomenon, what we have here is a good old-fashioned bake-off between a rookie on a late-season tear and a popular starter (Isaiah Thomas) who could sell pepperoni pizza to a vegetarian.

McCallum and Thomas both want to be the Kings’ starting point guard. Or a starting guard. And who says they can’t develop into an effective two-guard pair? And who knows whether Thomas will even be back next season? As a restricted free agent, Thomas can accept offers from other clubs – including one that could take him out of the Kings’ price range.

Management is approaching the offseason with two main, unwavering priorities: acquiring a facilitating floor leader and an interior defender.

Fortunately for Thomas, the Kings and the 29 other teams already have a grasp on his game. In his three seasons, the 5-foot-9 veteran, who was the last pick of his draft, has squashed every teammate who attempted to swipe his job. Given his size, that’s going to remain a career-long challenge. Opponents – and most league scouts and executives – consider Thomas an off-the-bench scorer with an uncanny ability to seize openings in the lane and score on a unique array of floaters, reverse layups and occasional dunks.

McCallum is this season’s second-round surprise, and a late-season surprise at that. Since being thrust into the starting lineup because of Thomas’ deep thigh bruise, the 6-foot-3 rookie has averaged 14.4 points, 7.2 assists, 3.6 rebounds and a whopping 45 minutes. He twice has passed for 10 assists and has committed fewer than two turnovers per game.

Perhaps most impressively, he uses his compact frame, with his thick calves and long arms, to harass opposing ballhandlers, essentially functioning as a defensive shield, particularly on the perimeter.

“Ray has always been an aggressive kid,” said his father, Ray, the coach at the University of Detroit Mercy. “I remember back at the YMCA, when he was in third or fourth grade, they made him back off. He was a one-man press. The other kids couldn’t get the ball across midcourt. But that’s the way he was taught to play.”

Resist at the point of attack. Push the pace. Move the ball. Shoot the ball.

“And KYP,” McCallum Sr. added, laughing. “Know your personnel. Understand what kind of passes your teammates need, where they’re most effective, and don’t try to be too cute.”

After Friday’s practice, the younger McCallum recalled being benched – by his father – whenever he tossed a too-fancy pass or threw the ball out of bounds for a turnover. But as his game evolved, his passing and decision-making maturing, so did his reputation. There was no shortage of recruiters from major-college programs when McCallum finished high school, though the allure of playing for his father in an up-tempo style ultimately kept him close to home.

In a rookie season of change and transition, McCallum has gained a reputation as a hard worker and quick study. His style is more solid than spectacular, which is not to say he can’t throw down impressive dunks. He is ambidextrous; he eats and writes with his left hand but shoots with his right. He also advances the ball quickly via the pass or dribble – with either hand – and his presence alone nudges his teammates toward a faster pace.

“He still has to develop a better feel for the game at times,” Kings coach Michael Malone said, “understand who he’s playing with, where the matchup is, who is in foul trouble. Are we in the bonus? But he’s gotten much better, especially this last month. This summer is a big summer for Ray.”

McCallum’s shooting – regarded as his main weakness before the draft – remains suspect. In his nine games as a starter, he has shot just 37 percent from the field, 37 percent from three-point range and 63.7 percent from the line.

But Malone keeps pressing his young guard to attack.

“I told him the other night, ‘If you’re going to make mistakes, make them being aggresssive,’ ” said the coach. “Ray has shown he can play. For him to put up these kinds of numbers, scoring, taking care of the ball, sharing the ball, and playing good defense against great players, bodes well for his future.”

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