Next man up. It’s a mentality that most teams have, but up until the last few weeks, the Kings hadn’t really had to deploy the strategy. The injury bug has hit and it’s hit hard. Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Rudy Gay is done for the year, Omri Casspi is still nursing a calf strain and Garrett Temple is out until after the All-Star break with a hamstring injury.
Sacramento was already short at the wing, but the loss of Temple is a tough one. He’s the team’s best perimeter defender and more than one player has described him as “the heart and soul of the team.”
“What Garrett brings is so many intangibles,” Joerger said following practice on Thursday. “He can defend point guards that are giving us problems. He defends shooting guards. He sometimes lines up small forwards. He makes an open shot, he makes an open pass, makes the right play. He holds guys accountable.”
The Kings are now onto their contingency plan for their contingency plan. Initially, Sacramento had aimed on keeping their three rookies away from major playing time in year one, but this is a, ‘break glass in case of emergency’ moment.
“Other guys have to find their way,” Joerger said of trying to replace Temple. “I think getting Malachi some minutes will help him.”
Malachi Richardson has heard this all before. Joerger went public with the idea of playing the 21-year-old slasher in December, only to change direction. He’s been back and forth between the Kings and the Reno Bighorns all season long, but this time is different.
“He’s ready for it, he’s ultra confident, that’s what you need in this league,” veteran point guard Ty Lawson said of Richardson. “He can shoot the ball. He can get it going. So we’re going to need him to step up with GT being out.”
Taken with the 22nd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, Richardson has only seen 144 minutes of court time more than halfway through the season. He’s averaging just 3.6 points on 43.9 percent shooting in 8.3 minutes through 14 appearances, but that’s about to change.
After playing sparingly through the first two months of the season, Richardson has seen action in eight straight games off Joerger’s bench. He has moved ahead of fourth-year guard Ben McLemore in the rotation and with Temple’s injury, there should be plenty of opportunity for the rookie to shine.
“It’s probably just confidence,” Lawson said of the difference between Richardson and McLemore. “You see Malachi, he thinks every shot is going to go in. With Ben, you see that his game maybe just waivers a little bit on what the coach is saying or if he misses a shot, he looks back at the coach. The difference between them is just confidence.”
Richardson has a moxy to him. He doesn’t hesitate to shoot or take his defender off the dribble. McLemore had that look at one time, but after an up and down four seasons in Sacramento, he’s lost a little of that luster.
“I remember when Ben first came into the league, he was real confident in his shot,” Darren Collison said. “He’s been through a lot since he’s been here. It’s not easy for what he’s been through. For a young player to experience everything he’s experienced in this organization.”
Instability has reigned supreme for McLemore since being selected by the Kings with the 7th overall pick in 2013. Four coaches in four years has to be tough for a young player. In many ways, McLemore’s struggles are more of an indictment on the franchise he was drafted by than him.
Despite starting 204 games early in his career, the former Kansas star has regressed the last two seasons. He’s currently averaging 5.1 points in 14.9 minutes a night.
“When you’re shooting a shot, if you think of it as a second option, your form might be off or your rhythm might be off,” Lawson said. “I feel that’s where Ben is right now. He’s going to get out of it soon, but we’ve just got to keep talking to him, telling him stay confident, stay shooting the ball.”
McLemore has worked tirelessly on his game. He can be seen shooting long after practice, and before each game he trains with assistant coaches on the court trying to improve his ball handling skills.
It’s not a lack of effort or dedication. Maybe he was thrust into a role he wasn’t ready for too early in his career. Maybe it’s the constant change. Whatever the reason, the Kings are working hard to avoid the same pitfalls when dealing with Richardson.
Richardson came to the Kings with a reputation as a player without a conscience. With just one season at Syracuse under his belt, there were also some major concerns about his shot selection and his ability to defend.
While still a work in progress, the rookie has been better than advertised on the defensive end. Richardson stands 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan and he’s done a nice job of maintaining the bulk he added before the season. He has the physical tools to be a league average defender or better.
He fights through screens, collapses quickly on his mark and has already shown a decent understanding of the defensive schemes. He gets beat by an occasional back cut and he is still learning how to handle the craftier of NBA wings, but these are issues that most young players face.
“Learning from each game,” Richardson said about how his latest opportunity has helped him. “Each game is different, it’s a different matchup everyday. You have to go out every game and play. You can’t take nights off in this league.”
On the offensive end, Richardson has no fear. He attacks his man on the way to the hoop and he is always ready to launch from the perimeter.
“Mal, he’s just fresh, he doesn’t know any better,” Collison said. “He’s just going out there and having fun and trying to play the game.”
Kings players have spoken glowingly about Richardson since training camp began. He can often be seen having 3-point shooting contests with veterans and if there was money involved, the rookie would leave the court with full pockets. He carries himself more like a third-year pro than a rookie and his teammates have shown a willingness to involve him in the offense.
“Trust is the most important thing when it comes to this sport,” Richardson said. “To have a bunch of vets believe in a rookie, is big. For them to have confidence in me, it means a lot. I just want to go out and keep helping.”
Injuries have opened a door. Richardson appears to be the player that Joerger will turn to first, at least in the short-term. Don’t expect to see him start, especially against veteran opposition. The Kings will continue to build him up with the hopes of not repeating past mistakes.
McLemore might get another opportunity as well. At 23-years-old, the Kings haven’t abandoned the athletic shooting guard. With just 11 healthy bodies, Joerger will likely mix and match his rotations on a nightly basis trying to mask the team’s deficiencies brought on by the rash of injuries.