SACRAMENTO – Thick, complex playbooks, grueling a.m. practices, endless media scrutiny, thirsty groupie harassment…with so many new things thrown his way, it’s understandable Ben McLemore dropped his first NBA season.
The Sacramento Kings’ seventh overall pick from Kansas in 2013 was not prepared for the pros. Despite unseating the disgruntled Marcus Thornton as a starter seven games into last season, the skinny 6-foot-5 two-guard struggled with his jumper (30.1 percent) and was exposed by his perimeter defense (NBA.com).
After 26 starts, McLemore lost the job back to Thornton until the veteran was traded in February, forcing the then-20-year-old back into the primary rotation. He finished the year with a career-best 31-point, 5-assist performance, but over the course of 82 games the frosh averaged 8.8 points on 37.6 percent shooting from the floor and 32 percent from three, contributing little else. McLemore often camped by the arc on offense and dismissed driving to the basket, which marginalized his burst and led to a paltry 1.7 free throw tries a game.
Now drinking age, with a full campaign behind him, McLemore is noticeably more comfortable with the job and its demands. The Kings used their top pick this summer to select Nik Stauskas, another shooting guard, but the former lottery pick is focused on the things he can control.
“I don’t feel pressure. It’s all about your confidence,” McLemore told Sports Out West at media day. “You need to go out there, play your game, and have fun.”
McLemore emphasized fun. It was in short supply last year, when the Kings lost 54 games and there were local rumblings the rookie could be a bust. McLemore switched his uniform number (and retired the M-16 moniker) this offseason to reclaim old glory. Contrary to recent news, the organization didn’t force his hand.
“I always wanted to go back to my original No. 23. Everyone knows in high school (Oak Hill Academy) and college, that was my number. When I found out that Peja’s number was retiring, it was perfect timing for me. I was excited (to have) the opportunity to wear his jersey, and now it’s back to normal, back to 23.”
In his lone year at Kansas, McLemore showcased an all-around game which convinced scouts he had All-Star potential. The second-team All-American fell in the draft however due to character concerns, ironic since the players he looks up to are high-IQ hustlers.
“As a kid, I was a big fan of LeBron and Paul Pierce. Coming into the league, with my shooting, coaches tried to model my game to Ray Allen’s. I can see that a little bit, but I’m still Ben McLemore, I just want to be myself, but at the same time, just watching those guys and learning from them helps a lot.”
This season, McLemore promises to straighten out his aim from downtown, and slash to the hole on more than rare occasions. The 2013 Sprite Slam Dunk participant also seeks to improve his 14-of-18 success on throw-downs, although he admits he may have exhausted his inventory.
“I’m really not a creative dunker…but I can dunk the ball. If I need to put it in the basket, I put it in the basket.”
The game has slowed down for McLemore. A cool demeanor may result in the Kings’ own purple panther.
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