Ailene Voisin

Opinion: Kings guard Ben McLemore figures he’s a Rising Star

Ben McLemore, trying to make a pass against Houston’s James Harden on Dec. 11, fumed over his exclusion from the Rising Stars Challenge.
Ben McLemore, trying to make a pass against Houston’s James Harden on Dec. 11, fumed over his exclusion from the Rising Stars Challenge.

Ben McLemore is the little brother who tags along but never gets in the way. No one messes with the mild-mannered shooting guard. His teammates keep him close, shield him from the negative noise with a protective, wraparound embrace. The fact he never complains about anything – Kings officials barely got a rise out of him when they drafted another shooting guard, Nik Stauskas, last summer – further endears him within his locker room.

But after a disappointing January, when his promising start coincided with his team’s prolonged funk and he was bypassed from the Rising Stars Challenge during the NBA All-Star Weekend, McLemore has become surprisingly prickly. Asked late Tuesday about the slight, he bolted upright in his chair and repeatedly used the term “pissed off.”

“I didn’t care that much about not being invited back for the (slam dunk) event,” said the second-year pro, a runner-up last year in the dunk contest, “but I feel like I should be in the Rising Stars. That was one of my goals going into the season. I’ve worked really hard and I know I’ve improved, especially defensively. I just can’t let it affect my future.”

A few reasons he was ticked off? The roster includes Shabazz Muhammad, Dante Exum, Nerlens Noel and Zach LaVine, the Minnesota rookie who also will participate in the dunk contest. While the choices are open to debate, McLemore is right about one thing: He is smart not to let the snub affect his career, unless he channels his exclusion in a positive direction by getting mad and then continuing to get better.

The not-so-gentle McLemore contributed 13 quick points, two steals and one nasty, one-handed dunk in the opening minutes against the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday. The goal is less floating, more attacking. And fortunately for the organization, McLemore, 21, is young and agreeable.

Equally significant is that, amid the ruins of an immensely disappointing season, his work ethic hums along like a clock. He arrives early for individual workouts and routinely turns out the lights after practices. He loves the scent, the rhythms of the gym, as much as he loves the game. In his own quiet, persistent way, he desperately wants to be great.

There have been tantalizing hints of progress this season at both ends of the floor. Though not a defensive stopper, the 6-foot-5 McLemore is grasping tendencies, sticking closer to his man and utilizing his quick feet and hands for the strips and steals that lead to transition opportunities.

Before the Kings’ familiar meltdown against the Warriors, he showed off his improving ballhandling with a two-dribble, baseline spin that resulted in a resounding one-handed flush and a 10-point lead. He also made four three-pointers, though as often happens he was virtually invisible and/or ignored for long stretches.

“I believe he needs more designed plays,” center DeMarcus Cousins suggested afterward. “He started off hot and didn’t touch the ball basically anymore. So that’s on me. I can find ways to give Ben the ball more, especially seeing double teams. And also those guys in the back room.”

The elephant in the locker room hasn’t disappeared. Coach Tyrone Corbin inherited a tough job at an inopportune time. But Michael Malone has been gone since Dec. 14, and at some point the veterans should start listening more closely when McLemore speaks about moving forward, salvaging the season, improving his skill set.

Since the departure of Malone and assistant Chris Jent, who worked closely with the guards, McLemore relies heavily on assistant Greg St. Jean and members of the player development staff. The emphasis is on curling into the lane, bodying up on opponents, cutting hard, making plays, running faster, pursuing rebounds.

“With DeMarcus, Rudy (Gay) and even DC (Darren Collison) having the ball so much,” St. Jean said, “it’s not always scripted when he (McLemore) is going to get shots. He is learning how to play off double teams, get to the open space, get his feet set. But he can get lost.

“I talk to him all the time about getting rebounds,” St. Jean added, “ ‘Rebound, and get out and run. Don’t be in no-man’s land. Get a couple of easy baskets, see the ball go in, get to the free-throw line, and everything becomes easier.’ ”

McLemore takes it all in, takes it all to heart. Though his statistics dipped noticeably in January, he noted his shooting percentage is up appreciably from a year ago (37 percent to 45 percent) and his defense has improved, and he is determined to end the season on the ascent, partly to prove being bypassed for the Rising Stars was a mistake (by the league’s assistant coaches), mostly because he wants to win.

“I’m excited to get to that next level,” McLemore said with a slight smile. “We’re still figuring it out as a team, you know? But it’s a mindset. I’m young and I know I can get better.”

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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