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Ray McCallum’s play could leave Sacramento with tough choices

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LAS VEGAS — The Sacramento Kings are set at the point guard spot.

They traded for Greivis Vasquez to become the pass-first point guard that gets DeMarcus Cousins and Ben McLemore going. Behind him off the bench they can bring in score-first Isaiah Thomas to spark the second unit. That pair makes for a good one-two punch. Plus, Jimmer Fredette thinks he is a point guard, too.

Ray McCallum is playing well at Summer League and could throw a wrench into the entire plan.

McCallum, the Kings’ second round pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, attacked the paint and had 23 points on 7-of-10 shooting Monday night in the Kings loss to Golden State. He had one assist (although part of that was guys didn’t finish his passes), he had six steals and he was clearly the guy in charge of the team. For the second game in a row, McCallum looked good.

“The thing about Ray is he is an extension of the coach on the floor,” Kings coach Mike Malone said after the loss. “Great feel for the game.”

McCallum is baby faced but he is the son of a coach — he played for his father in college at Detroit — who spent three years playing the college game. He shows a real basketball IQ and maturity on the court, he does the little things that are too often missing for rookies at Summer League. For example, when he has the ball and feels pressure out top he doesn’t turn his body to shield the ball and limit his driving options, he stays square and has the skills to know if the defender makes the play for the ball he can pull it back and go by them.

And go by them he did Monday — he attacked the paint ferociously. He was 5-of-5 in the restricted area on the night and got to the line a dozen times (including bouncing back from one hard foul that should have been a flagrant call).

“Tonight early on he got caught dribbling around a lot, kind of pounding the ball too much,” Malone said, he also personally chewed the entire team out at the half for their effort. “Second half he was much more efficient with making plays, getting to the rim and putting pressure on the defense. He’s a terrific athlete and he showed his athleticism by making plays to the rim and finishing them.”

“Honestly I was just trying to be a little more aggressive,” McCallum said of his effort in his second Summer League game. “I watched the film, and a lot of times coming off the ball screen I could have attacked a little bit more and that’s something I tried to do tonight. Get in the paint, not necessarily just looking for my shot but just getting in the paint and trying to look for one of my teammates.

“Tonight the lane opened up for me a lot so I was able to get in there and get to the hole and try to get to the line. That’s something that’s in my game and I was just trying to be aggressive.”

McCallum was impressive. You want to be careful reading too much into Summer League success but after a couple games this much is clear — he can play at the NBA level.

Which leaves the Kings with some potentially challenging choices.

Traditionally NBA teams only carry a couple point guards on the roster and the Kings have two good ones, plus Fredette who is more of a combo guard but likes the ball in his hands. Carrying those three and McCallum on the roster is not going to be easy.

“He’ll come in, there’s nothing set in stone,” Malone said of McCallum’s role. “You know it’s going to be a healthy competition having three point guards and Ray’s kind of shown his ability here so the cream will rise to the top.”

McCallum’s game is more like that of Thomas than Vasquez, meaning it is possible if the Kings like McCallum enough they could see what the trade market is for Thomas.

McCallum need not be worried about getting his NBA shot. When I mentioned the Kings backlog at the point to a front office person for another team his reaction was “if they don’t want this kid we’ll take him, he can play.”

Just a few games into Summer League, it is certainly clear McCallum can play. Which is a good problem for the Kings to have.

Wall has to work for recognition among top NBA point guards

Washington Wizards guard John Wall dunks the ball during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Chicago Bulls, Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — Fresh off scoring 51 points against the Washington Wizards, reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry praised John Wall, who dropped a quiet 41 against the Warriors.

“He’s a top-tier point guard,” Curry said, “and it’s like that – not his caliber every night – but obviously at the point guard position you’re going to have some talent on the other side of the ball most nights.”

Wall has never played better in what is now a point-guard league.

It doesn’t stop with Curry. The talent pool includes Cleveland’s Kyrie Irving, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, Portland’s Damian Lillard, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook and the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul, to name a few.

“I think I’m having a career year,” Wall said. “I can say I’m playing my best basketball, but not the way I want to play because it’s not equaling up to wins.”

Wall is an All-Star for the third time but gets lost in the packed field of “top-tier” point guards. His 20.1 points a game are sixth at the position, while his 9.9 assists are third behind only Sacramento’s Rajon Rondo and Westbrook.

But some nights there is just no denying his talents.

Like Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Wall had 28 points and 17 assists to lead Washington past the Knicks. It was another showcase performance during a season that hasn’t gone the way he or the Wizards have wanted.

The Wizards will be a sub-.500 team and outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture at the All-Star break. Injuries to sidekick Bradley Beal and many others have hampered Washington this season.

But Wall is holding up his end and is playing like a top-five point guard.

He has an all-around game – the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, to spot up, pass, use his court vision and rebound. As Celtics coach Brad Stevens said recently, “you have to pick your poison” when defending Wall.

“Being able to shoot the ball off the pick and roll with great consistency – that’s what makes defenses choose what to do next,” Stevens said. “He’s been a great passer off the pick and roll.”

There’s no shortage of admiration around the league for Wall, who Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown deemed “the fastest guard in the NBA.” Brown compared Wall to a Maserati sports car and said the 25-year-old has improved because “you learn how to drive your Maserati better.”

Much of Wall’s game has improved in his six pro seasons since he was the first overall pick out of Kentucky in 2010.

“His speed is probably second to none in the NBA. … He’s a one-man fast break and it’s crazy because he logs so many minutes,” Warriors guard Klay Thompson said. “His midrange jumper is also so much improved. You can tell he’s been working on his game a lot, and you like to see that from guys.”

Wall doesn’t get the headlines like Curry, Irving or even Thomas, of late. He has only scored the most points in a game he’s played in eight times this season, but Wall is the kind of player that teams have to game-plan against.

“You’ve got to build a wall against Wall,” Cavaliers star LeBron James said. “You let him play in open court one-on-one, he’s too fast, he’s too strong. He’s going to put your defense at bay.”

Opponents have tried to close off Wall’s drives to the basket and force him to take jump shots. At times, it has worked, like when the Trail Blazers limited him to 4 of 17 shooting in a victory last month.

“When you’re playing against an All-Star-caliber player like him, you work as hard as you can, you try and contain his penetration and hope he misses some jumpers,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said.

More often than not, Wall makes the most of his time and space. Even so, Washington coach Randy Wittman believes Curry should get more recognition than Wall because of team results.

“John’s body of work has been pretty good; he’s been recognized with that,” Wittman said. “You’ve got to go out and play, you’ve got to go out and win. Those are the two things in our league. You want recognition? Be a winner and play your butt off. That’s how you get recognition, and John’s gotten it.”

NBA writer Brian Mahoney contributed to this report.

Report: “Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics”

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The Boston Celtics have assets, a collection of good role players but lacking the true stars, the alpha, the No. 1 option that any team needs to really win in the NBA.

How about Al Horford?

The Hawks are testing the waters for Horford, and as you can see in the video above, Chirs Mannix of Comcast Sportsnet New England (as well as The Vertical at Yahoo Sports) sees a fit.

“I think Boston, Al Horford is a legitimate possibility for the Celtics. I think that is one of the guys across the league that Danny Ainge is the most excited about. He is a four man that would fit right into what Boston is trying to do. It would cost a lot of money to re-sign him in the offseason, but I think Boston is willing to play it, because they haven’t paid a lot of money for players in recent years.”

The question here, of course, is the cost going back. All sources around the league right now say the Hawks are asking for the moon (as Mannix mentions). The givens in this kind of deal would be David Lee‘s expiring contract (for salary reasons), and the Nets unprotected pick. But it’s going to take more. Jae Crowder? Marcus Smart? Avery Bradley? Kelly Olynyk? Isaiah Thomas? It’s going to take a couple of those guys on top of Lee and the pick.

But if you’re the Celtics, that’s the move — you have put together all these assets, now you need to consolidate them into a couple of stars. Horford’s good-at-everything will fit beautifully in Brad Stevens’s system.

Just something to keep your eyes on. Unless the Hawks decide not to move Horford at all. Which is still a possibility, they may not break this thing up.

Damian Lillard added to Team USA Olympic roster pool

Damian Lillard
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If you’re looking for a point guard who can flat-out score the rock, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many better than Damian Lillard. The Trail Blazers’ guard is averaging 24.2 points and 7.3 assists per game, with an above-average true shooting percentage of 54.6 percent, and a very high usage rate of 30.9.

He’s the kind of guy who might have a place on the Team USA Roster.

Which is why USA Basketball has added him to the pool to be considered for the Rio Olympics summer. The reason for the change is both Lillard’s level of play this season, and the fact he called USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo to ask for a spot, as reported by Marc Spears of Yahoo Sports.

Lillard deserves consideration, but there are two key reasons he likely doesn’t make the team:

1) He is still a terrible defender.

2) The list of guards for the USA Roster is ridiculous: Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Russell Westbrook. And now Lillard. That’s 10 guys for likely five spots. It’s hard to see Lillard making that cut.

But he deserves consideration.

Kings co-owner Shaq: Vivek Ranadivé told me George Karl would coach rest of season

Shaquille O'Neal
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli
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Kings general manager Vlade Divac said keeping George Karl as coach was right move “for now.”

How long is “for now”?

Shaquille O’Neal, a Kings minority owner, shares insight.

Sam Amick of USA Today:

This would mean a little more if Vivek Ranadivé weren’t prone to wild swings. Remember, the Kings said Tyrone Corbin would finish last season as coach before firing him for Karl.

Divac also said in November that Karl would coach the rest of the season, and that came up for debate fewer than three months later.

Shaq’s revelation is as likely to embarrass the Kings in a few weeks as it is to signal Karl’s job security.