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Beyond the Castle Walls – The battle at the small forward position

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In the second preseason game of the 2012-13 year, the Sacramento Kings beat the visiting Portland Trailblazers 117-100.

Behind 23 points from Marcus Thornton, DeMarcus Cousins putting up 20 along with seven boards and three assists and 16 from Aaron Brooks, the Kings beat up on the Blazers for most of three and a half quarters and won a game that means nothing in the standings.

What really matters in these next six or seven games for the men in purple and black?

As the Kings get a few preseason games under their collective belt, the battle for a couple of starting spots seems open for the first time in quite a while.

There is a great competition going on for the starting point guard spot between the incumbent Isaiah Thomas and newcomer Aaron Brooks, but the one that’s really piqued my interest is the campaign to see who will start at the small forward position.

Assuming that Tyreke Evans will hold down the shooting guard position and not play much of the three like he did at the end of last year’s season, the dogfight for playing time comes down to three guys.

Let’s look at all three and how they did in the second exhibition game on Monday at the newly named Sleep Train Arena.

Travis Outlaw started the game at small forward and played almost 17 minutes, scored four points on 2-of-5 shooting and had one rebound.

Not a truckload of numbers for Outlaw, but that’s not what Outlaw gives you on a night-to-night basis. He’s going to get you the occasional triple and some boards, but what Coach Keith Smart likes is his defensive intensity.

“I thought Travis and Tyreke did a great job of setting the defensive tone early on two guys – in Batum and then Aldridge,” Smart said. “Those guys have the ability to score and have big games.”

Outlaw played most of the first quarter and started the second half as well, possibly the most consistent minutes he’s received since arriving in town.

“It felt good to go out there and get back in the rhythm of the game,” Outlaw said. “Tonight, I just really tried to concentrate on my defense and being there at the help position.”

Overall grade for Outlaw: B. He did what the coaches asked of him and played great defense against Nicolas Batum.

Next up was newly signed James Johnson.

Johnson played just over 17 minutes and scored 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting, had four boards, an assist and two turnovers.

Johnson came in at the 2:20 mark of the first and immediately made an impact. Just moments after replacing Outlaw in the lineup, he grabbed an Aaron Brooks miss and jammed it home for the power dunk and his first two points of the night.

Included in his run were some nice buckets, some key boards and more solid defense on the Blazers’ big men. Watching Johnson go almost coast-to-coast for a dunk makes you very cognizant of his ability to handle the ball on the run.

Johnson would play only a little more in the second half, with Smart making it a priority this preseason to give every possible combination a chance to be seen.

Johnson is very aware that this game meant nothing as far as wins and losses go, but means a lot in the focusing and building of this team.

“This is preseason,” Johnson said. “We haven’t won nothing yet and we haven’t gone anywhere yet. All we can do is build and keep building and hope these wins don’t get to our heads, being young and all.”

What will Johnson do to show Kings fans, coaches and fellow players that he can be a mainstay in the rotation?

“I’m just playing basketball, man,” Johnson said. “I don’t have any handicap in my game. I like defense, I play offense and I’ll take the challenge… I feel that there is no man whose heart is going to be pounding more than mine, more aggressive than mine for the win.”

Smart warned not to sleep on Johnson’s defense just because he can find a way to score.

“James has been providing defense all throughout training camp,” Smart said. “He has great principles defensively and he’s a skill player. When he comes into the game, the game changes, right away. He changes a basketball game.”

Overall grade for Johnson: B+. Johnson’s athletic ability is off the charts. He will be able to find many ways to score, but could pick up his defense near the baseline.

The final candidate is longtime fan-favorite Francisco Garcia.

Garcia played 20 minutes and scored four points on 2-of-4 shooting, had two rebounds and two assists.

At first glance, Garcia seems to be the odd man out, but not so fast.

All Garcia did was hit his first two three-point attempts less than a minute after entering the game.

Garcia plays such an intense defense that he can’t keep it up over an entire 48 minutes.

Heck, no one could! Watching him get up in a guy’s face for a couple of hotly contested possessions in a row is priceless. No one gets under a guy’s skin like ‘Cisco.

“I shared with the team about ‘Cisco being ready to play,” Smart said. “He had an incredible practice on Saturday. He shot the ball extremely well. He didn’t play in the first quarter. He got in the game and hit two threes right away. He brought energy right off the bench.”

The battle for the majority of the minutes at the three may come down to Coach Smart using a three-headed monster of sorts. With Outlaw playing solid defense, Johnson running the floor and scoring at will, and Garcia playing that tight, in-your-face defense and hitting some key triples, the team seems to have the spot covered.

Later in the week, come back to find out more about the point guard dilemma that faces the second-year coach.




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