A year ago this week, Ben McLemore was helping lead his Kansas Jayhawks to a Big 12 Championship and a top seed in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
Three months later, he was drafted at No. 7 overall to Sacramento, and hailed by many (this writer included) as the steal of the draft. A fan base, already elated by the teams’ good fortunes on the relocation/arena front, packed high expectations on the 20-year old before he’d even hit the floor.
Now that we hedge back into the ides of March, with the NBA season winding, McLemore is playing his best basketball of his young career. It’s been an easy thing for Kings fans to overlook, distracted by his poor start and by the star-power of the upcoming draft class. So let’s review a lesion we should have learned (and one this writer wrote about in July) – we need to reign in expectations on McLemore, both the optimistic and the pessimistic.
In October, it was easy to get stuck on the McLemore hype train. He was considered a lock for a top-2 draft slot for months before falling to No. 7. His fantastic shooting stroke hadn’t fallen in the NBA Summer League or in the preseason, but the first thing anyone said about the young man from St. Louis was that his shot was picture-perfect.
From November through February, though, the hype faded. McLemore struggled mightly on both ends of the court, showing solid effort but producing little results. Before the All-Star break, he was averaging just 7.6 points per contest on 36.2% shooting, and a disastrous 31.2% from downtown. He was also getting beaten defensively, so much so that Coach Michael Malone had to re-shuffle in Marcus Thornton (never known as a willing defender) into the lineup.
Truth be told, it isn’t clear how much of a fit McLemore will be in the long-term of the franchise. Plenty of moves will be made before this team is ready to contend in the Playoffs. But the pessimism about McLemore’s future is just as silly as the preseason hype in assessing his long-term value.
The good – in March, he’d been far more impressive. He’s not as timid, more confident at attacking the rim and getting to the foul line (pre-All star, he had 1.3 FTA be game. Since then, it’s up to 2.0). He’s getting his feet under him on his shots, and both his field goals (51.1%) and three pointers (38.1%) are hitting at season high percents. He’s still struggling defensively, but the effort is still there in full force.
Everything about McLemore still screams raw. He’s still not sure of his own role on the squad, and he has no go-to moves. His footwork is rookie-level, and his handles below that. He needs to gain consistency in his release (particularly how he sets himself for a shot), work on his handling in traffic, and continue to gain defensive awareness.
With time, the raw parts of his game will most likely improve. He’s been nothing but a sterling worker by all accounts, and there are few moments where he looks lazy on the court. He’s just a raw rookie with excellent athleticism, a solid motor and a stable franchise around him—there aren’t any long-term red flags to panic about.
James Hamm of Cowbell Kingdom wrote an excellent piece of McLemore’s future, comparing him to current Suns starter Gerald Green. While I believe McLemore will become a more consistent offensive player in time than Green is (no slouch, for sure – 15.4 points on 43.8% shooting for the playoff bound Suns), the comparison isn’t a bad one.
I’ll give one more comparison—Kevin Martin. In his rookie year, Martin was far worse (2.9 points on 38.5% shooting, 20% from three) than McLemore, albeit with far less playing time on a much deeper team. Fast forward two years later, and Martin had gained confidence on the offensive end, gained consistency on his long-ball, and attacked the defensive enough to become one of the top free throw shooters in the game.
That’s one possible career path for McLemore. In the end, no one can predict how much of an impact the rookie will have with the franchise long term. It’s just far too early to give up on him now.