Ben McLemore had a bit of a burden to carry coming into his first season with the Sacramento Kings.
The then-20-year-old rookie arrived in town with great expectations. Ahead of the 2013 NBA Draft, it was no secret that Pete D’Alessandro and his staff highly coveted the talented-yet-green shooting guard, so much so that they nearly tried to move up in order to select him. On most mock drafts, McLemore was a projected top-three pick and it seemed very unlikely that he’d be available to the Kings when they picked seventh.
But that didn’t end up being the case. Instead, the 20-year-old guard was right there for the taking when D’Alessandro and the Kings were officially on the clock. Just like Thomas Robinson, the franchise’s pick the previous year, Sacramento found itself with another perceived steal in the draft. They landed a player who many thought could’ve been the No. 1 overall pick and, fair or not, expectations were already being set for the young guard out of Kansas.
“I think there was a lot on Ben,” D’Alessandro said of McLemore not long after the Kings’ 2013-14 campaign came to a close. “And I think part of that was I came in and I was thrilled to get Ben with the seventh pick (knowing he wasn’t projected to be there). I think it really was a great pick for us and it fell into our laps.”
Despite his fair share of struggles under the weight of lofty expectations, McLemore never gave up or became complacent during his first NBA campaign. The rookie guard, instead, continued to soak up as much information and detail as he could, earning a reputation as a diligent worker. Often times, McLemore would be one of the last guys to leave the court following practice.
“You gotta keep working each and every day,” McLemore said not long before putting together his best performance of the season – 31 points, five assists and five rebounds in the Kings’ regular season finale loss to the Phoenix Suns. “And it’s all going to work out for you (if you do). So, that’s all I want to do is keep getting better, each and every day, work on my game and also just have fun.”
The transition from college to the NBA is not an easy one. Making the leap from playing roughly 30 games a year to more than double that number is something most rookie players tend to overlook. McLemore was no exception to the rule and admits the longer schedule was a major adjustment.
“As a rookie, as a young player, still it’s tough,” McLemore said of adapting to the length of the NBA calendar. “Legs start getting tired. You gotta learn how to develop your body and help your body (recover). And I did, I’ve been doing great, (but) at the same time, it’s definitely work.”
There was a lot McLemore learned in his first NBA season. Adapting to a new system, as well as understanding the tendencies of 29 other teams, were just some of the challenges he faced in his rookie year. However, there was no greater lesson for the 21-year-old guard than seeing first-hand how professional basketball is more than just a game.
McLemore played with 22 different teammates over the course of his first NBA campaign. A revolving door of transactions completely changed the complexion of the Kings throughout the season, giving McLemore a front-row seat to the business side of the NBA.
“This is what you get paid for and this is what you get paid to do,” McLemore said. “It’s just a whole different lifestyle – the game. And this is what I love to do, so it’s definitely a big transition coming in from high school to college to college to the NBA. It’s a big difference and a big jump.”
McLemore knows what he needs to work on this offseason to come back a better player next year. From watching film and first-hand experience on the court, McLemore was able to recognize what weaknesses opposing teams took advantage of in his first NBA year.
“Just coming in the league, I’ve seen so much playing against these different type of caliber guys every night (and from that) just seeing what I need to work on,” McLemore said. “It definitely helped me (realize), ‘Ok, I need to work on this, this summer.’”
There is a bevy of skills McLemore needs to improve upon for next season. His shot, which was a heralded part of his game coming into the NBA, was inconsistent and unreliable for most of the year. His handle was also spotty and limited his ability to create scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Defensively, he matched up physically against his competition, but he had trouble grasping how to guard different personnel.
“I think it was an up and down year for him, (but) a great experience,” Kings head coach Michael Malone said of McLemore. “Experience is the best teacher in the world and for him to get this out of the way and go through the NBA and learn personnel, the league, there’s been a lot thrown at that kid for a young kid who played one year in college.”
Even though he fell short of perceived expectations, the Kings’ confidence in McLemore has never wavered. According to D’Alessandro, they believe he has a “rare, athletic skill set” that’s not easy to find.
“He’s shown a great resiliency, which I think is a great sign for things to come,” Malone said.
To go along with the obvious physical tools, D’Alessandro and company believe McLemore possesses the right attitude and approach to the game – the very mindset that reinforces their faith in his future.