Ben McLemore could not have been prouder of seeing two points in the final box score last week.
That’s how many points Denver guard Arron Afflalo scored against the Kings on Wednesday.
That also happened to be who McLemore was assigned to defend.
“When I walked out of the locker room the other night, (McLemore) said, ‘Coach, Afflalo had two points tonight,’” said Kings coach Michael Malone. “So he’s taking a lot of pride in his defense.”
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It wasn’t that McLemore didn’t take pride in his defense last season, his first in the NBA. He just didn’t always know what to do.
Far too many times as a rookie, McLemore could be found looking confused or being abused on defense.
Whether it was All-Star guards like James Harden or players at the end of the bench like MarShon Brooks, guards had their way too often against the Kings at McLemore’s expense.
It got to the point that Malone had to turn to former King Marcus Thornton, who has never been a noted defender, to be a defender.
Some mistakes were physical. Others were mental breakdowns such as leaving shooters like Klay Thompson wide open.
But beginning this season with a matchup against Thompson, McLemore has been noticeably better defensively.
Thompson shot 4 for 14 against the Kings, his worst shooting performance so far this season.
McLemore is still growing into his defensive role, but the hiccups have been fewer this season.
“I think everybody sees,” McLemore said. “Everybody on the team, the coaching staff, everybody around the league sees how I’m improving and trying to get better each and every day on my defense.”
Malone said many of McLemore’s struggles last season can be attributed to his youth. But McLemore put in a lot of time in the offseason figuring out ways to improve.
“I think Ben McLemore’s defense has been very, very good,” Malone said. “A marked improvement from last season where he was learning the NBA, learning the personnel.”
In Friday’s win at Phoenix, McLemore defended Eric Bledsoe at the end of the first overtime, making it uncomfortable enough for him that he attempted – and missed – an awkward floater to try to break the tie.
McLemore has always been praised by Kings coaches for being a hard worker, and this season he’s put more into the mental aspect of the game to improve defensively.
“Last year it was rookie defense, but I’m learning different places to be and how to play defense, and it’s been helping a lot,” McLemore said. “Just me watching film, little things like that, it helps a lot.”
McLemore’s defense has kept him on the court, even though he’s struggled with his shooting to start the season.
He’s only shooting 37.1 percent and averaging 6.7 points. Last season, McLemore spent too much time standing on the perimeter waiting to shoot jumpers.
This season he seems intent to do more to stay involved.
“When you’re a shooting guard and you’re struggling a little bit, you have to find other ways to impact the game – defense, rebounding, facilitating and I think Ben is looking to do all those things,” Malone said. “He’s more than just a shooter, he’s a complete player.”
And he’s studying the box score for different reasons this season.