The Kings have long been in search of their next great perimeter defender.
Ben McLemore, it’s your turn to fill that role.
The rookie guard has a lot to learn about the NBA, and defense at the pro level can be especially challenging for first-year players.
But the Kings need someone to help slow down the athletic guards that have given them fits, and at 6-foot-5, McLemore has the size and athleticism to bother most guards.
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So add that to the list of duties for the rookie from Kansas.
“I’m ready to step up to the challenge and do what I have to do to help the team,” McLemore said.
Kings coach Michael Malone’s plan was to bring McLemore along slowly and not put him in any position that might hurt his confidence. That plan has been accelerated now that McLemore is a starter and a player with the potential to become an elite defender.
There have been rough spots, like when Phoenix’s Gerald Green posted back-to-back 23-point games, or when McLemore started Sunday’s loss to Golden State by leaving one of the league’s best shooters, Klay Thompson, for wide-open 3- pointers.
Then McLemore’s reward for being named Western Conference Rookie of the Month for November was defending Oklahoma City All-Star Russell Westbrook on Tuesday.
“Ben embraces it and he knows this is a work in progress,” Malone said. “He’s learning on the fly, and against a player like (Westbrook) he’s going to get that experience and learn from it. I thought he met the challenge head-on. Russell’s a great player, and I thought Ben did a terrific job in trying to contain him using his own athleticism to try to keep a great athlete in front of him.”
The Thunder used backdoor cuts, screens and transition opportunities among the ways to get Westbrook scoring chances, making him hard to keep track of for a defender.
Six of Westbrook’s seven made shots came with McLemore as the primary defender. McLemore spent much of the night chasing Westbrook around the court. Westbrook finished by making 7 of 19 shots with seven turnovers.
McLemore’s growth defensively is important because of the makeup of the Kings.
Starting point guard Greivis Vasquez doesn’t have the foot speed to stay ahead of quick guards, especially coming off ankle surgery, and Malone has put Vasquez on more stationary players when possible.
That means there could be more nights McLemore has to defend an opponent’s most athletic guard.
“We don’t have (Hall of Famer) Scottie Pippen on our team, so guys have to guard their matchups,” Malone said. “I think (McLemore’s) team defense is very good right now. He understands our team concepts and philosophy. The one-on-one defense and personnel, he’s getting better.”
McLemore was preparing himself to defend Kobe Bryant on Friday. However, the Los Angeles Lakers All-Star isn’t ready to play his first game since he had surgery last April on his Achillies’ tendon.
McLemore said the key in preparing for players like Bryant is to study as much as possible and sticking to the game plan.
“It’s mentally, it’s definitely mentally,” McLemore said. “Just going out there telling yourself this is what you need to do to stop this person. On Klay, I was guarding him like he wasn’t a shooter. I wasn’t pressing up on him, making him a driver. (Tuesday) I had Westbrook, and I had to tell myself this is what I need to do. I need to stick with my same defensive principles and still go out there and be aggressive.”