Darren Collison recognizes he has big, er, small, shoes to fill. Isaiah Thomas was extremely popular during his three seasons with the Kings. He was feisty and stubborn, charismatic and athletic, and he had a knack for squeezing between defenders and scoring in the lane.
But the Kings wanted a more polished, playmaking point guard. The past regime. The current regime. The owner, the general manager, the coach. The search for a floor leader to pressure the ball and direct an uptempo offense, a player who realizes pass isn’t a four-letter word, has coincided with the organization’s eight-year playoff drought.
Tyreke Evans, Greivis Vasquez, Pooh Jeter, Aaron Brooks, Luther Head, Sergio Rodriguez, Jimmer Fredette, Ray McCallum and Thomas have taken turns, and for various reasons, none resolved the dilemma.
Next man up? That’s Collison. Though he has been a backup for most of his career, the Kings signed the veteran out of UCLA because he better fits their blueprint and won’t break the bank. His three-year, $16 million deal is substantially less than the four-year, $27 million contract Thomas signed with the Phoenix Suns.
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But as much as anything, signing Collison was the fastest way to shake things up.
“Darren just has a different gear than other players,” said Kings backup center Ryan Hollins, Collison’s former UCLA and Los Angeles Clippers teammate. “He has so much speed, he’s a headache to guard.”
Most of that quickness comes from the gene pool. The Collisons of Rancho Cucamonga sped around their neighborhood not on bicycles or cars but on their own two feet. Darren’s father, Dennis, a probation investigator, represented his native Guyana in the 100 and 200 meters at the Pan American Games. Darren’s mother, June, an executive in the Dignity Health hospital chain and also a native of Guyana, once ranked 10th in the world in the 400 meters and competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Darren has possessed jet-like quickness since birth, though at times he has needed to be nudged.
“Darren was a good runner,” June Collison said, “but he did not like running. We were taking him to a Little League game once, and he said, ‘I could have been home watching ‘Ninja Turtle.’ Why do I have to do this?’ We wanted to keep him busy. He did karate for two years in elementary school. But then he discovered basketball, and I couldn’t get the ball out of his hands. He would be out back shooting baskets, and I would scream at that child, ‘Darren, it’s 11 o’clock at night. You have school in the morning.’ ”
Once the youngest Collison discovered his passion, at about age 8, he diagrammed his route to the NBA. Though skinnier and shorter than most of his classmates, he told his mother – who was skeptical because of her son’s size and the long odds of becoming a pro – he would earn a scholarship to a good university (UCLA), complete his degree (history) and then play in the NBA. Years later, the plan included another vow: He would marry his high school sweetheart, Keyosha, who promised to keep him well fed while forging her own identity.
And it all came true. Keyosha is a professional chef and the mother of the couple’s 1-year-old son, and Darren is entering his sixth NBA season.
His path to the Kings wasn’t easy or without detours. His size was an obstacle until he grew into his 6-foot frame and learned how to capitalize on his long arms, strength and explosiveness. Former Bruins coach Ben Howland said his one-time prize recruit out of Etiwanda High School was “a tiny guy, all of 142 pounds” when he committed to UCLA.
“Darren is one of those players that keeps getting better and better,” Howland said. “He always loved to play defense. He could always see the floor and run an offense. But he had a very high dribble when he got to college, so I encouraged him to bring the ball down, and now he’s got a great handle. I think playing with Chris Paul (with the Clippers) last year also helped him improve his playmaking.
“When I talk to him again, I am going to tell him that he should be one of the top 10 assist guys in the league. When you look at his tenacity and how hard he works, to me that’s a very realistic goal. And I think Sacramento is going to be great for him.”
Collison concurs with Howland about Paul’s influence and also credits the tough-love approach of Clippers coach Doc Rivers.
“Doc was really hard on me as far as executing plays,” Collison said. “I knew how to score, how to get guys involved, but it wasn’t just on me. Everybody on the team has to understand that the ball has to move from side to side. It’s five guys working together. He did a great job getting guys to understand that.”
Asked whether he feels pressure as Thomas’ successor and the presumed starter at point guard, Collison shook his head.
“Isaiah is a good player who did what he had to do for his team,” Collison said. “But if anybody knows about pressure, it’s me. Pressure is playing with a contending team, a franchise that is thinking championship. Indiana, Dallas, the Clippers. Starting those games down the stretch when Chris was hurt last year. That stretch was key, not just for myself but for that franchise. Those are pressure games. This is a brand new year. I think of it as a brand new start for the franchise.”