Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Darren Collison happy to be with Kings, wants to be part of return to playoffs

Darren Collison, taking a breather after a foul against Miami on Friday night at Sleep Train Arena, has played for five teams in his six NBA seasons. The 27-year-old  Southern California native will face his last team, the Los Angeles Clippers, tonight.
Darren Collison, taking a breather after a foul against Miami on Friday night at Sleep Train Arena, has played for five teams in his six NBA seasons. The 27-year-old Southern California native will face his last team, the Los Angeles Clippers, tonight. hamezcua@sacbee.com

Darren Collison faces one of his former teams – the talented, enigmatic Los Angeles Clippers – on Saturday night. Yet given his NBA journey, this is nothing more than running another layup drill.

Six NBA seasons. Five teams. Eight coaches. This isn’t a sprint; it’s a marathon. And how crazy is that for a point guard who stands 6-feet tall and might weigh his listed 175 pounds only after devouring a plate of calamari and a beefy, juicy sandwich Thursday at a restaurant near the Kings’ practice facility?

But the ball stops here. Collison, 27, is moving in. Despite the early turmoil that has scraped more skin off his teammates’ fingertips/egos/confidence than the rock stars lost while scaling El Capitan, the Southern California native is intent on facilitating the transition into a new arena and, he hopes, a return to the playoffs.

The first part is a done deal. The beams of the new downtown sports and entertainment center will be shoved into the ground within days. The part about the Kings returning to the postseason? Don’t you just hate that trending term, “process”?

The promising start to the season began to sink with the return of the sluggish, isolation offense. Then DeMarcus Cousins missed 10 games with viral meningitis. Then Michael Malone was abruptly fired. Then Tyrone Corbin was thrust into the head-coaching position – tossed to the wolves, as it were, since the players were stunned by the timing of the change and quietly infuriated about the apparent lack of a blueprint. Then the surprisingly effective Omri Casspi sprained his knee. Now Rudy Gay’s status is day-to-day with a knee ailment.

Yet Collison remains the sunlight behind the fog. The Clippers not only miss his contributions as Chris Paul’s invaluable backup, particularly late last season, they miss his demeanor, his presence, his maturity, his lightness of being. Luxury tax issues prevailed. Whatever. The Kings needed a break. Despite their ailments and that absurd, ill-timed coaching decision, the acquisition of the former UCLA standout was among a series of shrewd, necessary moves orchestrated by general manager Pete D’Alessandro during the offseason.

Onerous long-term salaries continue to be dumped. Gay was signed to a very reasonable contract extension, just months after the neophyte regime secured Cousins with a maximum-salary contract to the dismay of his lingering critics. It was a brilliant, clairvoyant maneuver, considering the center’s prodigious talents, age (24) and unwavering loyalty to the organization and the community.

Like the stubborn Cousins and the confused but committed Gay, Collison is digging in.

“You hear talk – ‘Does Darren want to go to a contending team?’ – but I’m more than happy to be here,” Collison said between bites of his sandwich during a casual lunch. “It just seems like everybody is longing for that feeling of getting back to the playoffs, and I want to be a part of that. I want to be known as one of those players who brought us back, sort of like what happened when I was in Indiana. I want to be here through the tough times and be around to really enjoy when we get it going. By next year, when we know each other better, I think we can be really, really good.”

Collison hardly strolled into a comfortable situation. The Kings’ chronic search for a lead guard has persisted since the blissful Mike Bibby/Doug Christie pairing and included experiments with Tyreke Evans, Luther Head, Pooh Jeter, Aaron Brooks, Sergio Rodriguez, Jimmer Fredette, Greivis Vasquez and the immensely popular Isaiah Thomas.

While Thomas signed a four-year, $29 million contract with the Phoenix Suns, where his unique skills are utilized perfectly – as a scoring off-the-bench guard in a talented three-guard rotation featuring Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe – his exit was both necessary and inevitable. The 5-9 dynamo was insistent on being a starter – not a change-of-pace, explosive reserve – and his poor defense and reluctance and/or inability to share the ball were a constant source of irritation in the locker room.

There was little chemistry among Thomas, Cousins and Gay, and while some members of the Kings’ front office lobbied to retain and persuade Thomas to become a sixth man, the chances of that happening were slim, or worse. Thomas is a scorer who remains driven to be a starter. The alternatives included a pursuit of Collison, who has been both a starter and reserve and who was coming off strong playoff performances while subbing for the injured Paul.

“Isaiah was really popular,” Collison said, “and I knew that. But the fans have been great to me. In the streets, stores, social. They tell me how happy they are that I’m a King. I wanted to stay with the Clippers, but when Pete (D’Alessandro) came after me, the Clippers didn’t really react. It didn’t seem like they tried to keep me. And you know how it is. Everybody wants to be wanted.”

While the Clippers continue searching for a quality backup – they signed and waived Jordan Farmar and traded for Austin Rivers a few days ago – Collison is still forming relationships and finding his way.

At his best, Collison, whose parents were world-class sprinters, uses his quickness to harass opposing ballhandlers, often picking them up fullcourt, disrupting sets, working the clock and minimizing the advantage of stronger, more powerful point guards. Offensively, he is an airliner on sneakers – after grabbing a rebound or taking a pass from Cousins, he is a blur with the ball, dribbling, attacking, scoring or distributing to open teammates before defenses are set. His halfcourt playmaking skills are fundamentally sound but continue to evolve; he still is learning to probe defenses, exploit seams with creative penetration and kickouts or command a floor with personalities as dynamic and dominant as Cousins and Gay.

Ben Howland, Collison’s coach at UCLA, believes his former star should rank among the NBA’s leaders in assists. Collison, who has become a more consistent threat from three-point range in recent seasons, isn’t there yet, though the Kings’ perimeter shooting probably costs him three or four assists per game.

And about directing an offense featuring Cousins and Gay? Larry Bird, Collison’s former boss in Indiana, would hold the ball and shake off Kevin McHale, demanding his Hall of Fame teammate spin off the defender and post closer to the basket before he threw him the ball. Collison doesn’t have the chops of Larry Legend, but he has a connection with Gay and Cousins. And as his confidence grows and his familiarity increases, presumably so will his willingness to look elsewhere during those stretches when Cousins becomes too predictable on the left side, Gay dribbles to excess on the wings and the offense stagnates.

Asked about this, Collison smiled and nodded. Yet while delicately picking at a dish of calamari and cutting his sandwich with precise, almost gentle movements, he talked about enjoying his time with the thoughtful, erudite Gay, and his surprise at both Cousins’ personality and his defensive capabilities.

“DeMarcus is nothing like what I heard,” Collison said. “I talked to him a little right after I signed, but then he went with Team USA. I watched the games. I saw what he did against Serbia (in the gold-medal finale). I knew he was a great offensive talent, but I didn’t realize what he could do defensively. Defensively, he is totally underrated. Then when I got a chance to know him, he’s funny, smart. I played with Roy Hibbert, other good centers, but no one like DeMarcus. Man, he’s an amazing talent and teammate.”

As he slowly left the restaurant, he lingered, mentioning that his two best coaches – Dallas’ Rick Carlisle and the Clippers’ Doc Rivers – also were the most demanding. He talked about the age-old point guard dilemma of deciding when to shoot and when to pass, and asked about John Stockon. He was stunned to hear that the Hall of Famer from the Utah Jazz has massive hands and can cup a basketball with ease. And then there is Paul, his former teammate and mentor in New Orleans and Los Angeles.

“I learned a lot from him,” Collison added, smiling, as he eased into his SUV, off to his 15-month-old son, Kinston, and his wife, Keyosha, a professionally trained chef. “I didn’t want to leave. But I love being here. People don’t understand how hard it is moving around like I have, from team to team, city to city. You learn a lot, see different systems, have different coaches. But it’s hard on everybody. I know things have been tough here, but honestly I can’t wait until next year. We can be really good.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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