Ben McLemore needed to see a shot go in, badly.
His return to the starting lineup Friday night was off to the kind of beginning that cost him a starting role last month.
“My first three shots were short, on the front of the rim. Short shots,” McLemore said. “Shots that I needed to get out my hand to get a flow of the game, and once I got that dunk, the game opened up for me.”
That dunk led to McLemore scoring a season-high 18 points in the 105-103 loss to the Phoenix Suns. McLemore was back in the starting lineup Saturday as the Kings hosted the Golden State Warriors at Golden 1 Center.
This is a big season for McLemore, as his rookie contract expires and he can enter free agency. But his play and playing time have been up and down.
McLemore has a chance to prove his worth now that playing time should be available. Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi and Rudy Gay are all perimeter players out with injuries, leaving opportunities for McLemore to make an impact if he can maintain his confidence and play well, as he did against the Suns.
“He kept his confidence and mental toughness. It’s something that we’ve been working on him with,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “Giving him confidence that we’ve got him, we support him. It’s not an easy cover playing (Devin) Booker; it won’t be an easy cover (Saturday) playing (Klay) Thompson. Miss a couple, keep shooting. We have a lot of confidence in you.”
Maintaining that faith in his game wasn’t easy, McLemore admits.
He’d appeared in 35 of the Kings’ 50 games entering Saturday with career lows of 5.5 points, 1.2 rebounds, 0.7 assists and 15.5 minutes.
“… Now it’s when my number gets called, I’m going to be ready,” McLemore said. “So there’s no need to get frustrated. My time is going to come. I’ve been doing a great job working on my game, learning the game, still watching film. And as you can see (Friday), it showed.”
McLemore is being counted on to step up because with the injuries the only other shooting guard the Kings have available is rookie Malachi Richardson. Arron Afflalo has played more small forward of late due to the injuries.
The Kings view McLemore, 23, as a young, developing player, but in these times he has to show what he’s learned in four seasons.
“It’s a good opportunity for (McLemore),” Joerger said. “He stays engaged, does his work. He has a little more experience to throw against these front-line guys rather than throw Malachi out there. I think that’s positive.”
McLemore can also relax a little, knowing he won’t be yanked off the court after his first mistake. Players generally like knowing they are free to play without that concern.
“Once I knew I was going to get the starting spot, I knew I was prepared. But now I’ve just got to go out there and perform and not worry about making mistakes and stuff like that,” McLemore said. “I’ve been working real hard, and it showed out there on the floor (Friday).”
McLemore’s teammates were especially happy to see him play well. For the last two seasons, McLemore has struggled with declining statistics while trying to adjust to new coaches after establishing a bond with his first coach, Michael Malone.
“He came in, played aggressive, made some big shots for us,” teammate DeMarcus Cousins said. “He showed he’s a true professional. He’s ready when he’s called upon, and he went out and performed.”