Ben McLemore speaks so softly that cellphones and cameras often skip some of his words. In a Kings locker room bursting with booming personalities, he is the quiet constant, the beloved little brother who sits in the background, content to stay out of the way.
But that’s part of the problem. The Kings want him to get in the way. They want him to grow up, say, preferably by tomorrow.
After two seasons and three NBA training camps, the third-year guard continues to display classic form on his jump shot, superb athleticism in the open court and a work ethic unrivaled by his peers, but his performances are so erratic that Kings officials – past and present – are left scratching their heads.
“I can’t deny I wish Ben would have played better,” coach George Karl said after a recent practice. “But he’s a young guy. This is the first time he has faced a competition situation for minutes. I think he’s feeling the stress.”
Other than being gifted the starting two-guard spot during his rookie season because he was the Kings’ prized first-round draft choice in 2013 and the team had few alternatives, nothing has been easy for McLemore. His poverty-stricken background and troubled upbringing have been chronicled in every significant media outlet in the country. A native of St. Louis, he attended three high schools, including one in Virginia and another in Texas. He enrolled at Kansas but was forced to sit out his first year while fulfilling academic requirements.
I can’t deny I wish Ben would have played better. But he’s a young guy. This is the first time he has faced a competition situation for minutes. I think he’s feeling the stress.
Kings coach George Karl
Besides concentrating on his studies, McLemore joked the other day, he spent his spare time sitting for his first tattoos.
“I couldn’t play or practice,” he said. “I could only watch. That was really hard.”
While the Kings await McLemore’s awakening – some indication he will provide some much-needed perimeter shooting and use his athleticism to get to the free-throw line – it’s worth taking a look at the calendar; he’s only 22 years old. Because of his disrupted prep career and just one college season before turning pro, in terms of basketball years he’s considerably younger. Additionally, the toned, 6-foot-5 frame that so closely resembles the NBA prototype for shooting guards prompted his high school coaches to play him instead at center.
McLemore, who averaged 12.1 points and shot 43 percent last season, concedes he is still making the adjustment, still attempting to grasp the nuances of playing on the perimeter, moving without the ball, sprinting downcourt for transition opportunities, cutting backdoor for layups. And none of this appears intuitive. Often he can be seen watching rather than participating, his demeanor even pensive at times.
12.1 Kings guard Ben McLemore’s scoring average last season
“He is thinking too much,” veteran guard Marco Belinelli said. “When he is open, take a shot. Play how he can play. He can run the floor, and he understands the philosophy. I’m happy to help him because he’s a really good guy.”
Belinelli offered his own career as an analogy. Drafted 18th overall by Golden State in 2007 after playing professionally in Italy, he battled inconsistency during two seasons with the Warriors and another with the Toronto Raptors. After being traded again, to New Orleans in 2010, he flourished in a backcourt with Chris Paul, one of the league’s premier playmakers.
The Kings signed free agent Rajon Rondo last summer largely because of his defense and passing, two of the team’s chronic weaknesses. His ability to set up shooters – to deliver the ball at the right time and place, so players shoot in rhythm – is crucial in Karl’s system, particularly in the halfcourt.
He is thinking too much. When he is open, take a shot. Play how he can play. He can run the floor, and he understands the philosophy. I’m happy to help him because he’s a really good guy.
Kings guard Marco Belinelli
Asked which teammate he regards as his biggest resource, the amiable, accommodating McLemore blurted: “Rondo. I talk to Rondo a lot, knowing that Rondo is going to give it up. This is a big year for me. I’m still learning. Last night I watched film of Rip Hamilton, how he moves without the ball, little things like that, how I fit. But a good thing is, once the season starts, I know my role, and what I have to do to prepare myself.”
McLemore’s post-practice habits contrast sharply with his shooting woes. He routinely is the last player in the practice facility, the one who keeps the assistants on the court, retrieving balls and counting his shots. At one point Thursday, he attempted 50 consecutive jumpers before leaning over, exhausted, trying to catch his breath.
“I’ve seen 10-year players, five-year All-Stars lose their confidence, because this game is tough,” Karl said. “You have to play at a high level on a daily basis. When you don’t play that way, you second-guess yourself. Ben will figure it out. Hopefully it will be soon.”