Editor's Note: The above video is from a postgame media session with head coach George Karl on Thursday, Oct. 8, 2015.
SACRAMENTO -- George Karl continues to tinker with his starting lineup, changing it up for the fourth straight preseason contest. As he mixes and matches with the rotation, a clear picture at four positions has materialized.
Rajon Rondo has started all four games at the point guard position after signing a 1-year, $9.5 million deal in the offseason. Rudy Gay will start at the wing, but he will see plenty of time at the power forward position. Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein has impressed next to center DeMarcus Cousins and is nearing a lock at the four. Kosta Koufos will play substantial minutes as the team’s third big, but Karl like him better anchoring the second unit.
Rondo, Gay, Cauley-Stein, Cousins and…
For Saturday night, it was point guard Darren Collison manning the shooting guard spot with the first team, but who begins the season as the starting two is still up for grabs.
“It’s actually the first time we’ve played (them together),” Karl said. “We haven’t used it in training camp yet either because we’re playing them against each other more. I can see being very effective.”
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The pairing of Rondo and Collison started slow against the Damian Lillard-less Trail Blazers. They combined for six points, two assists and three turnovers during the first quarter as the Kings took a 17-16 lead into quarter number two.
Collison and Rondo started the third quarter together and they began to work into a groove. Collison scored nine of his 18 points after the intermission, while Rondo added three assists in nine minutes before both sat out the fourth.
Following the game, Karl raved about Collison.
“If I had to bet, I think Darren Collison probably has as good a chance to have the best year he’s ever had in his career this year,” Karl said. “I think he’s just going to like what we do (and) how we use him.”
Ben McLemore, last season’s starter at the spot showed signs of waking from his preseason slumber. The 22-year-old dropped in eight points in 18 minutes off the bench. He is still in the conversation, but he has yet to have a breakthrough game.
“He listens, he’s very coachable, he’s in-tune with what we’re doing,” Karl said during pregame. “He hasn’t had the flow or the game come his way, which he needs sometimes."
Veteran wing Marco Belinelli is quickly becoming a fan favorite. He is a better scorer than most thought and his stroke from the outside is a welcome addition. Whether that translates into a starting job or not is undetermined.
“I would say right now I have to figure that out,” Karl told reporters. “There’s one discussion this afternoon about playing maybe Rondo and Collison and Belinelli together because that could be a team when you’re in a catch-up situation that might play.”
Karl refused to speculate on who would start the season in the backcourt with Rondo. There are moments of clarity, but then they fade.
“Certain days I think I’ve got a direction,” Karl said. “It might matter to some of those guys in there, but what matters is how many minutes you’re going to play.”
Rookie Willie Cauley-Stein continues to make strides in his progression and Saturday night was no exception. Playing against an athletic Portland frontline, the Kentucky product scored seven points and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds in 24 minutes. He is quickly learning how to play alongside Cousins and his improvement from one game to the next is noticeable.
“He’s so active,” Cousins said. “For him to be a rookie and to trust him in those positions, that’s a compliment. Most rookies you’re pretty tough on them, especially on the defensive end. But he has so many good instincts on the defensive end, it’s not really much you have to teach him.”
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Cauley-Stein’s fitness level has steadily improved after he came to camp in less than stellar shape. His rebounding is better than advertised and his length and athleticism are elite for an NBA power forward.
“There are some things he still has to learn,” Cousins continued. “But you guys see it, his potential is through the roof.”
When you leave a game still wondering who was guarding a specific player, there is usually an issue. The Kings passed on CJ McCollum two seasons ago and the former Lehigh University star seems to have taken it personal. The sharpshooter couldn’t miss, scoring a game-high 30 points on 11-of-20 shooting in Lillards absence.
With Rudy Gay out, Karl used a variety of players at the three, including Caron Butler, Marco Belinelli and Omri Casspi. The numbers don’t jump off the page, but all three provided a spark at different moments of the game.
The new Kings roster has depth and versatility. For the first time in years, they can withstand an injury or two and not have it end their season.