HOUSTON -- There’s no shame in being a defender having problems keeping track of San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili.
It’s probably even more forgivable when you’re rookie, such as the Kings’ Ben McLemore, who had never played against Ginobili, one of the craftiest scorers in the NBA, until Sunday evening.
There figure to be plenty of more lessons learned as McLemore makes his first tour of the league, but the Kings remain encouraged with McLemore, who will start tonight’s game against the Houston Rockets defending All-Star guard James Harden.
“One thing I love about Ben is he is a great kid, his heart’s in the right place, he wants to do well,” said Kings coach Michael Malone. “He wants to watch film, learn and get better, he takes it very seriously and I know he’s going to get there and experience is the best teacher. What he went through (Sunday), even though it was a hard lesson for him and us, that’s going to help him (Tuesday) night and hopefully throughout the season.”
Ginobili had 28 points Sunday, his most points in a regular-season game since 2011. But it’s nights like that the Kings want McLemore to experience as a rookie.
“He was struggling and I’d be lying if I didn’t say part of me was like maybe I should take him out,” Malone said. “But I reminded myself this year, even though we want to win every game we play, so much of this year is allowing him to mature.”
McLemore’s confidence isn’t shaken by the ups and downs of his first season. He was praised by Malone for his effort defending Oklahoma City All-Star guard Russell Westbrook in a home loss Dec. 3, but admits there have been some rough spots.
McLemore has had to deal with the likes of Orlando’s Arron Afflalo in the post. Most veterans have a big strength advantage against McLemore and his wiry frame.
“They’re just letting me know ‘Welcome to the NBA,’ ” McLemore said. “And they definitely did that. I’ve just got to get a little stronger. Just coming in as a rookie I knew that one of my key things was getting stronger going against a lot of stronger players. I’ve just got to get stronger, play with my feet and my lower body.”
Malone said McLemore does extra work working on post defense because there aren’t many guards who play in the post in college, so McLemore is still learning to deal with players in the post without losing his balance and fouling.
The Kings love McLemore’s fearlessness on defense, too. He’ll step in front of bigger players to try and draw charges, even if it means ending up on the wrong end of a highlight dunk, as McLemore did Dec. 20 at Miami when LeBron James threw a dunk down over him.
McLemore said film sessions have helped him know where to be defensively and cut down on mistakes, such as giving shooters too much space or cheating too far off to help a teammate.
“I think I’m coming along pretty good,” McLemore said. “I’m definitely getting all the defensive keys down pat. I’m still learning but also I feel very comfortable going out there defending great players. I had Ginobili (Sunday) and (tonight) I’ve got James Harden. It’s been a tough matchup for me, going against these great players I have the confidence to go out there and play my defensive principles.”
McLemore looks most comfortable defending one-on-one on the perimeter. The nuances of off-ball defense will come with more experience.
“I feel like I’m doing OK with my one-on-one defense but I definitely can do better.” McLemore said. “I definitely pride myself on my one-on-one defense, my defense period. Definitely, I’ve got a big challenge (tonight).”
Malone said McLemore having ups and downs is “part of being a rookie.” Malone said McLemore’s focus has been good at times, and needs improvement at other times.
Malone remains committed to playing McLemore.
“I still believe in him 100 percent,” Malone said. “That’s why I didn’t want to take him out (Sunday) and crush his confidence and give him a chance to make plays on both ends of the floor. He did some good things and he did some things where we’ve got to learn where we can’t have breakdowns.”