In a surprising twist, a lottery pick not named DeMarcus Cousins is exceeding expectations for the Sacramento Kings.
His name is Ben McLemore, and he was the seventh selection in the 2013 NBA draft. After a disappointing rookie year, the 21-year-old is living up to the stratospheric potential he showed as a freshman at Kansas.
In his lone collegiate season, McLemore led his school to a 31-6 record while showing off a sweet shooting stroke, intense defense and head-turning athleticism. Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro thought enough of his skills to make McLemore his first draft pick on the job, despite the presence of fan favorite and fellow two-guard Tyreke Evans on the roster.
Evans was traded weeks later, which set the stage for McLemore’s coming out party. Yet the rookie struggled mightily on both sides of the court, to the point critics thought he may be a bust.
In 82 games, McLemore shot 37.6 percent from the field and 32 percent from behind the arc, playing porous defense on the ball and making poor decisions. He started 55 games, but often due to the Kings not having another reliable shooting guard (the ineffective Marcus Thornton was traded away on February 19).
McLemore saw the impending doom and went to work in the offseason. In addition to adding bulk, he improved his ball handling and spent hours studying the science behind the game. Anything, everything he could do to put the embarrassment of his rookie campaign behind him.
The former Jayhawk came into Kings training camp this summer with a pep in his step. Following a cold four-game stretch to start the season, McLemore has taken off, at full-speed towards basketball stardom.
For one, his offense is clicking. Through 33 games (all starts), McLemore is shooting 48.4 percent on field goals and 40.4 percent on 3-pointers. As the fourth option in the starting lineup, he’s averaging 12.2 points per contest after scoring only 8.8 points per game as a rookie.
McLemore is now the Kings’ best outside shooter, but he’s turned up his aggressiveness on drives too. The 6-foot-5, 195-pounder has 24 dunks on the season, after recording 34 jams all of last year. Even when he doesn’t throw it down, McLemore is making 66.3 percent of his shots within five feet of the hoop, as opposed to 53.6 percent a year ago.
Then there’s the defensive end. McLemore has become Sacramento’s top perimeter stopper, no disrespect to Darren Collison, Ray McCallum or Rudy Gay. When guarding shots beyond 15 feet, the quick-footed defender is holding opponents to 6.2 percent below their personal field goal average this season.
Last year, opponents shot 5.1 percent better than usual when McLemore was their cover. The guard has been responsible for stifling top gunners Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Klay Thompson and Arron Afflalo among others.
Nonetheless, McLemore is far from a finished product. He rarely assists his teammates, he doesn’t draw enough free throws, and rebounds too sporadically for someone with his size and leaping ability. His post defense needs improvement, he averages just 0.6 steals per game despite having elite speed and quickness and he must better avoid foul trouble.
McLemore also must learn to rely more on creating his own open looks, as he’s been assisted on 78.5 percent of his field goals this year. In comparison, Rudy Gay has been assisted on 33.8 percent of his makes.
But the big picture is clear. Ben McLemore’s story needs a bigger canvass, because his tantalizing promise has barely been scratched. In the meantime, the second-year pro has solidified himself as a two-way starter, and there’s little reason to believe he can’t manage more responsibilities in the coming seasons.
Those talks of McLemore being a bust can be taken out with the morning trash. Garbage, McLemore is not.