- Marc Stein, ESPN Senior Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- Caught his act myself Friday night. Ron Artest is indeed playing Vegas.
He's officially a summer-leaguer for the Sacramento Kings and I'd say he's already in mid-season form.
At least with his proclamations.
Artest stopped for a brief chat with ESPN.com before helping a team of Sacramento youngsters and free-agent hopefuls to a 91-72 cruise past the New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets. It gave the king of Kings -- dubbed one day earlier by co-owner Joe Maloof as "the face of our franchise" -- an opportunity to tell me that A) he's guaranteeing a championship next season and B) he's refusing to let free-agent sidekick Bonzi Wells leave the team.
You'll recall that Artest pronounced the Kings to be title-worthy before their tighter-than-expected series with San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. But he's saying it even louder now even though Artest hasn't yet played a minute under new coach Eric Musselman, and even though Sacramento doesn't yet have an agreement to re-sign Wells.
"We're going to win a championship next year," Artest announced, "and continue from there."
As for Wells?
"Bonzi ... he has to come back," Artest said. "I've talked to him a couple times [since free agency began]. He has no choice but to come back, or else he's going to be in trouble with me and Mike Bibby.
"He has to come back or he's going to have to see me and Mike. We're going to take him into the bathroom, tie him up and whale on his legs."
Artest mentioned that plan twice, so I think he's serious.
He was a bit more subdued once he got on the floor against the Hornets, blending in as much as he ever can. Members of the Golden State Warriors' summer squad, who played in the game before Sacramento's, lingered along the baseline for a bit to catch a glimpse of Artest mixing with NBA dreamers, but Artest gradually receded into a complementary role, intent on letting Kevin Martin do most of the carrying.
Artest logged 25 minutes in his debut and finished with a quiet 12 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Yet he insists that these games are a useful means to get an early start on preseason conditioning and learning Musselman's system. Musselman doesn't coach the Kings' summer team but takes an active role in its practices, which already has Artest convinced that he'll have to be in better-than-ever shape because of "the way he runs and presses."
"There's some good players here," Artest said. "I play pickup ball every day and the talent is not as good as this talent. So what better place to play pick-up ball than Vegas?
"It's not like a walk in the park for me. These guys can play. This is game situations. [So] it gives me a chance to work on my defense. I'm pretty sure, because of the [defensive] reputation I have, [that] guys want to come at me."
Truth is, Artest should be applauded for making the trek to the Vegas Summer League. It's the truth even though he didn't fly into town until Thursday night, forcing Artest to miss Sacramento's opener here, and even if no one has any idea how long he'll stay.
In the glory days of summer league in the 1980s, big-name veterans making cameos were commonplace. I still remember my first trip to the L.A. Summer League in 1989: Dominique Wilkins and Karl Malone were among the future Hall of Famers who dropped in unannounced for a good run.
Artest took it a step further and promised in advance to be here, which had the Maloof brothers -- watching their favorite player just a short drive from their family's Palms hotel -- struggling to contain their glee.
Three more interesting proclamations from King Ron:
• On the Indiana Pacers losing Peja Stojakovic to the Hornets in free agency after trading Artest to Sacramento for Stojakovic in January: "They didn't get stuck without nothing. [Second-year swingman] Danny Granger is a really good player. Really good. He will fill the void. Definitely."
• On the coaching switch from Rick Adelman, whom he wanted the Kings to retain, to the stricter Musselman: "I'm hoping I never have to get disciplined. I'm just going to stay right and listen to coach. If he ever has to discipline me, I'll be ready to take that, but I'm not trying to ever get to that point."
• And reflecting on the San Antonio series: "I was suspended [for] Game 2 and we still could have won that game. I twisted my ankle bad in Game 6 and Bonzi pulled his hamstring bad in Game 6. That was our series to win. I was saying that all along, that we would have a chance to win a championship. We were right."
I'm not quite sure how a six-game exit in the first round validates a championship prediction, but this was not the night to quibble. You don't expect to see a true showman in summer league anymore, even in Vegas. So you enjoy the show when they show up.
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.
4dSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann