Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings rookie McLemore still learning the NBA game

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

One night it’s Klay Thompson, two nights later it’s Russell Westbrook, and this Friday it’s probably Kobe Bryant.

So, Ben McLemore. How was your day? How is your week looking?

Only a few months ago, the Kings rookie gave up college textbooks for NBA playbooks, eager to pursue a pro career and avoid academic distractions. But these day jobs can be overwhelming, too. Every game is a pop quiz, every practice an adventure, every flight mere hours away. Even throwing down a clean, nasty dunk can be a challenge.

“There is so much you have to learn,” McLemore said after practice Monday, a slight smile creasing his boyish features. “Being a shooter, you have to move without the ball to get your shot, try to find it different ways, but with the same motion. How I shoot in practice is how I want to shoot in the game. Run the floor, get going, just play basketball.”

That works fine for the Kings. Better than fine, actually. Right now, the only people who like McLemore more than the Kings are the Warrriors, with Thompson foremost among them. The former Southern California high school star, who set an Arco Arena record with seven 3-pointers during his senior season in 2008, was back in town and back at it again Sunday. This time, he eclipsed his personal best with eight threes – the first three defended by McLemore.

“He’ll learn,” Kings coach Michael Malone said of the rookie. “He just allowed Klay to get too many open looks. (But) it’s never for a lack of effort with Ben. It’s just the mental side of things, on knowing who he’s guarding every night and how he has to guard those guys.”

Good luck and good night. Westbrook arrives with the Oklahoma City Thunder tonight. Bryant is expected to make his much-anticipated season debut here Friday. While McLemore has the size, quickness and athleticism to become an effective defender, no one shuts these guys down.

The Kings are far less concerned, of course, with the emergence of Thompson, the stature of Westbrook or the return of Bryant than they are with the ongoing development of their most recent lottery pick, with an emphasis on the word “ongoing.”

If teams could take a mulligan on the 2013 NBA draft, there is no way the former Kansas standout is still available at No.7. True, it’s early. But there have been hints, flashes, indications. McLemore, who appears even younger than this 20 years, is progressing nicely, probably even exceeding expectations given his struggles at the Las Vegas Summer League.

“When you have talent like he has, and a work ethic like he does, you are going to succeed,” said Kings adviser and Hall of Famer Chris Mullin. “I love the way he runs the floor. He’s fluid. He’s got beautiful form (on his jumper). He’s got to become more consistent, but if we start finding him out on the break more, he’ll get layups and free throws, and not have to rely on the 3-point shot. The quality of the shots will get better.”

McLemore – naturally sleek and sculpted at 6-foot-5 and 195 pounds, and no fan of the weight room – has electrifying athleticism. There is no need for the fake noisemakers with the rookie in the building, cowbells excepted.

Though mostly in spurts, he has converted 3s in transition, directed classic two-on-one fast breaks, converted spectacular alley oops, stolen passes and finished with two-handed reverse jams. Even his misses (including his inaugural dunk attempt in the season opener) induce gasps of amazement, accompanied by his own sheepish grins.

Whether McLemore becomes a star, as the Kings hope and his former Jayhawks coach Bill Self predicts, remains to be determined. Check back after three years. His ballhandling needs to improve, as do the “mental discipline” that Malone referenced and the shot selection Mullin noted.

“I think he’s got a desire to be great,” Mullin added. “I really do.”