Thearon Henderson, Associated Press
Sacramento Kings coach Reggie Theus counsels Ron Artest during a preseason game.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Ron Artest is lighter and leaner, and probably in the best physical condition of his career. He has a dynamic young coach who has rules but a wide-open playbook. He has the option of becoming a free agent next summer, finally earning a salary commensurate with his ability. He has another season to further distance himself from his past, from the suspensions and the locker room feuds, along with the famous brawl that dropped the NBA to its knees

But this is the crucial year, the season that defines Artest, determining whether he overcomes his personal and professional troubles or is destined to remain one of the league's most talented, but problematic, afterthoughts. As he enters his ninth season — weeks shy of his 28th birthday — he has an abundance of incentives to succeed, everything from Eric Musselman's departure and Reggie Theus' hiring, to next summer's potential financial windfall, to the prospect of re-establishing himself as the game's most bruising defender. It's all right there for his massive hands to reach out and swipe, which is what he plans to do, or what he says he plans to do.

His Kings' season could depend on it.

His future earnings most assuredly will.

"I have short-changed myself," Artest said the other day in one of his longer interviews of the preseason. "It's time I really focus on basketball. We had talent last year and wasted it. We played like garbage, absolute garbage. I thought about that all summer when I was doing the charity work and getting into shape. I was just getting ready for the year, just making sure wherever I was I was running, running, running. I am really excited about Reggie and what he wants to do."

Artest, whose productive if unspectacular 2006-07 season was marred by allegations of animal neglect, a misdemeanor domestic violence incident, disagreement with Musselman and teammates, and the Kings' failure to reach the playoffs for the first time in nine years, not only sounds different — more cautious and less eager to greet the cameras — he looks different. He has shed almost 15 pounds and reported to camp weighing about 246, well below the 273 pounds he was when acquired from the Indiana Pacers in January 2006. His arms are noticeably smaller, though still chiseled chunks of granite, and he is moving easily and pain free, no longer burdened by sore knees or lower back strain.

Yet Theus wants more. More of a low-post presence. More of a willingness to pass. More of the old Artest, a 6-foot-7 NBA force of nature who dictates the outcome of games with a steal or deflection, a nudged or hidden elbow, or sometimes, with sheer intimidation.

"Somewhere along the line, someone told Ron he's got to score more," said Theus, "but I want him not to focus on his offense, because he's going to have scoring opportunities. Nobody can guard him down (low). Defensively though, I'm waiting to see that guy who takes over the game."

Interjects Artest, who thus far is offering no resistance to curfew or other disciplinary measures, "I've been too focused on other things. Reggie's right. He's asking me to not pound (dribble) the ball so much. He's demanding that I really move the ball, and that's going to make me a better player. He has a good feel for the game. He just tells you to do something and it works, and he holds you accountable, you know? When he got hired I was excited about getting into shape. I began to make sure I eat right. I stayed off the greasy food, and I love junk food. I'm trying, I'm trying."

Artest, who spent much of the time in Sacramento fulfilling court-mandated community service obligations, traveled to Kenya and Honduras for what he described as life-altering charity missions. In an on-going act of contrition, he also renewed acquaintances with Pacers executives Larry Bird and Donnie Walsh while working out and the team's practice facility in Indianapolis. The chance-meeting only intensified his remorse, said Artest, who also said he feels particularly badly for returning from his lengthy suspension for his part in the brawl at the Palace of Auburn Hills, and shortly there-after demanding a trade.

"I let Bird down," he said. "They treated me like family, you know. It was just me being egotistical and immature. But all I can do is go on. Right now I want to see the Kings getting it back, making the playoffs. I just remember it wasn't that long ago that we were a good team."

(c) 2007, Sacramento Bee