Early in the third quarter Sunday against the Toronto Raptors, Kings guard Ben McLemore took an open three-point shot from the corner and missed. On the Kings’ next possession, a driving Quincy Acy found McLemore open in the opposite corner for another three-point look. This time, calm in the face of a closing defender, McLemore made the shot.
It was a shot McLemore admitted he might not have attempted earlier this season – at least not without hesitation that might have altered the outcome. The third-year guard was relegated to the bench after just four games as he struggled to find a rhythm on offense and coach George Karl said it appeared McLemore was “searching for confidence.”
Since then, McLemore’s play has steadily improved, and he returned to the starting lineup in the Kings’ 107-101 win over Toronto. After Sunday’s game, McLemore said he feels he’s “definitely getting my groove back,” and that he believes his struggles were because he was “thinking too much.”
“Everybody could see it,” McLemore said. “I’m out there on the floor, I’m just hesitant, trying not to make mistakes, instead of going out there and playing.”
McLemore, who started every game for the Kings last season, said he’s trying to play aggressively and trust his basketball instincts. On Sunday, he made one of the pivotal plays in the Kings’ third consecutive win.
With the Kings trailing 101-100 and less than two minutes remaining, McLemore took a pass from Marco Belinelli and drove into the paint, finishing his strong move with a layup from 3 feet to give the Kings a one-point lead. It turned out to be the winning basket as the Kings closed the game on an 11-0 run.
I know I can play the game of basketball. I’ve just got to go out there and play.
Kings guard Ben McLemore
McLemore said he was just trying to “be aggressive. I saw a lane, I saw a gap, I saw I could attack. Especially with the close-out that (Raptors guard) Cory Joseph had, I felt like with my quickness I could attack him and get to the rim.”
That’s the kind of self-assurance Karl felt was lacking from McLemore’s game at the start of the season. At the time of his demotion, McLemore was averaging 4.3 points on 6-of-21 shooting over four games, and Karl said it seemed McLemore was putting added pressure on himself to perform with the starting unit.
Since then, McLemore is 18 of 38 – including 8 of 18 from three-point range – and averaging 7.4 points. It’s a modest increase for a player who averaged 12.1 points in 32.6 minutes per game last season, but Karl said Sunday he has seen McLemore’s “body language get more confident” during that stretch.
“Personally, I just think that (the benching) sparked a fire under him,” forward Rudy Gay said. “He’s been playing well. He comes out here, no matter whether he plays 10 minutes or two or 20, and works the same. He works hard, and eventually, it’ll pay off.”
Personally, I just think that (the benching) sparked a fire under him.
Kings forward Rudy Gay on guard Ben McLemore
McLemore said he talked with veterans Gay, DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo after his slow start and all offered a similar read that he appeared hesitant. Cousins said he was “extremely happy for the kid” when McLemore returned to the starting lineup.
“Ben’s a big piece of this team, and we depend on him on a nightly basis,” Cousins said. “When he’s playing well, the team’s playing well.”
With 3:40 left against Toronto, Karl sent McLemore in for Omri Casspi, arguably the Kings’ most efficient scorer off the bench. Karl later said it was “crazy to take (Casspi) out,” but he felt the Kings’ energy was lacking and McLemore “came in, gave us defensive energy and then made a big hoop.”
“Confidence is a thin line in the NBA,” Karl said. “Whatever happened to Ben’s state, I’m confident that Ben can have a good year for us, and we need him to have a great year.”
While McLemore, 22, did not agree entirely that his confidence was shaken by his early struggles, he said Sunday he’s “getting comfortable” again on the court.
“It’s all mental,” McLemore said. “I know I can play the game of basketball. I’ve just got to go out there and play. Confidence is going to come – confidence is going to come.”