LAS VEGAS Ben McLemore's introduction to the big leagues, to the annual summer league that somehow thrives here despite oppressive heat, was up and down, in and out, this way, that way. His game was all over the NBA map, his raw potential locked in a weeklong duel with his glaring inexperience.
Airballs. Ferocious dunks. Off-balance jumpers. Deep threes. The flurry of turnovers. The occasional steal.
And he was hearing all about it. Of course he was hearing about it.
Friends and neighbors and relatives have cellphones. What happens here is tweeted everywhere, and for a 20-year-old staying in a city that caters to those 21 and older, there are few places to escape.
"People were saying, 'He was drafted too high, he is overrated,' " McLemore said shortly before erupting for 27 points and nine rebounds in the Kings' finale on Friday. "They want me to dominate every night, and there are nights I will dominate. I have a lot of alpha dog in me. I do. But I'm an all-around player. It's not all about me. And I know I have a lot of things to work on."
But, first, about his ill-fated attempt to escape, the one that served as a metaphor for his week: Between poor performances early on, and after soulful conversations with Kings coach Michael Malone and Kansas coach Bill Self, McLemore left the hotel and walked down the Strip to New York, New York, intending to ride the famous roller coaster. It was a great idea, a classic youthful adventure if ever there was one, except for one problem.
"The line was so long, and it was so hot, I just turned around and came back," McLemore said with a soft smile. "It was a little disappointing."
This is how it's going to be. Up and down. In and out. Ben McLemore's ascension figures to be a wild, white-knuckle ride, at least for the foreseeable future. Some games will leave Kings coaches and fans cringing about his inconsistency and itching to scribble a few more years onto his birth certificate. Other games will cause quiet, cautious celebration, reinforcing the organization's belief a sentiment shared by several scouts and general managers this past week, by the way that their first-round draft choice was stolen and not merely selected at No.7.
Probably the best advice for all concerned?
Sit back. Buckle up. Enjoy.
Arenas aren't built in a day, the Kings won't be transformed in a season, and rookies rarely arrive as gift-wrapped presents, polished and ready for prominent display. During his toughest moments here, McLemore indeed appeared overwhelmed, even confused by the quickness of his opponents and the pace of the game. He forced jumpers and missed badly, drove into throngs of defenders, lost his dribble. At his best, he resembled an athletic, prototypical 6-foot-5 shooting guard. Busting out for throw-down dunks. Attacking defenders and wisely stepping back for jumpers. Squaring up and converting deep threes. Pursuing rebounds and initiating fast breaks.
"We put Ben in situations he's not used to," said assistant Chris Jent, who coached the Kings in summer league. "He wasn't a stagger-screen guy in college, but we wanted to see how he does with that. Even in a few days, he was doing some things better, reading the defense, understanding that if you dribble and guys come at you, you don't have to keep going. Move the ball. And he can really run the floor."
McLemore's major weakness is his ballhandling, particularly with the left hand. That wasn't kept secret here in Vegas, either. The better his handle, Malone recited throughout the week, the easier it is to generate his offense.
"It's not like I can't handle the ball," McLemore said, "but I definitely can get better at it. I was a center until about my junior year (of high school) because I was so tall, and played in the post. I asked to change positions because I wanted to be more versatile, learn to handle the ball better."
Improving his handle and his shot selection won't be his only adjustments. His existence has long been a daily adjustment. Within the last five years alone, the St. Louis native twice changed high schools; moved out of an impoverished neighborhood; failed to pre-qualify academically and sat out his first several months at Kansas; emerged as a high lottery prospect after his only season with the Jayhawks; completed an erratic, if tantalizing summer league in Las Vegas, and in his spare time, resided with the Kings in one of the most opulent settings imaginable.
Situated in the south corner of the CityCenter, the five-star Mandarin Oriental offers stunning views of the Strip. Gaming and smoking are prohibited. Soothing music massages the senses the minute a bellman opens the front door. Asked about the posh accommodations during a lengthy chat late last week, McLemore shook his head. He looked out the window of the 23rd-floor restaurant and smiled. "The last time I stayed here I think I was 15, with my AAU team," he said. "Not like this place, though."
Dressed casually in gym shorts and sneakers, a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap tugged over his tight curls, and his long arms and legs slumped in a cushioned seat, he could have been mistaken for a taller, typical 20-year-old forced to visit Las Vegas with his parents. Hence, the popularity of the nearby roller coaster.
But the intense scrutiny and exposure McLemore experienced last week also offered a hint of what's to come. The Kings will be rebuilding, but they won't be ignored. The franchise rebirth in Sacramento will receive enormous attention both locally and nationally next season. The expectations on the rookies along with center DeMarcus Cousins also will be significant, at times perhaps even stifling.
"Pressure doesn't bother me," the soft-spoken, visibly relaxed McLemore insisted. "I hear stuff, but I just play. Like coach Self told me, 'Just go out on the court and be free. Play basketball.' I really can't wait to get back to Sacramento, to start working on things I learned this week. It already feels like home."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin (916) 321-1208 and follow her on Twitter @ailene_voisin.