Where would you place Ben McLemore's importance on the franchise's future-o-meter? First? Second, behind only DeMarcus Cousins? Third, behind Cuz and finding the right fit next to Cousins on the front line? Fourth, behind Cuz, the front line and the point guard development and competition of Greivis Vasquez and Isaiah Thomas?
Wherever you slot the importance of Ben McLemore's development, it looms large. He is the first pick of the new regime. And while McLemore's fall to the number seven pick in this year's draft is almost universally seen as a gift for the Kings, there were certainly alternatives to consider, including C. J. McCollum and Trey Burke. For momentum's sake, the franchise would sure like to see McLemore produce well enough to quell any talk of the intelligence of their very first pick.
Prior to Vegas Summer League, many Kings fans (yours truly among them) held out hope that McLemore would be a finished enough product to be in the starting lineup on opening night of the 2013-14 regular season. And while McLemore finished VSL a lot better than he started it, conventional wisdom seemed to be that Big Ben was nowhere near ready to be the contributor that we already know exists in Marcus Thornton. But...
Other than DeMarcus Cousins, I don't think that any player on the Kings roster has a starting position sewn up going into this year's training camp. I don't think that anyone even has the designation of "it's your job to lose." Jason Thompson started more games than anyone last year for the Kings, and I'm betting that he is going into camp battling for his spot in the rotation. John Salmons was third in games started last year, Isaiah Thomas fourth, and Tyreke Evans fifth. The Kings could potentially change 80% of their opening night starting lineup from a year ago (Cousins, Thompson, James Johnson, Evans and Thomas). As a result, we have to consider almost every possibility for McLemore.
Ben McLemore, Rookie of the Year Candidate: While I do not believe this to be the most likely scenario, it has to at least be considered. There is no doubt that at the end of VSL, Marcus Thornton was a considerably better NBA player than Ben McLemore, and by a wide margin. However, one has to wonder how much McLemore's game would benefit from playing with NBA-caliber players, especially if the shooting guard position is a position of emphasis in Michael Malone's offense (and you would think that it would be regardless of whether Thornton, McLemore or Jimmer Fredette was manning the position). Plug McLemore in with the generous Vasquez and go out on a limb and say that he and Cousins have chemistry, and you have a guy that would at least be part of the ROY discussion and a first-team all-rookie candidate (though I kind of like Trey Burke or Victor Oladipo for ROY due to their respective situations).
It's really not out of the question that McLemore could come into camp and flat light it up. And given that Thornton and Fredette are not exactly defensive demons and that all three of these guys will be learning a new offense and defense, McLemore's raw talent could propel him into the starting lineup. McLemore won't be handed the job, but he will be given every opportunity to earn it.
Ben McLemore, Trade Machine Instigator: In this scenario, McLemore starts the season as a bench but core rotation player. He has some ups and downs, but by the trade deadline he has played well enough that the Kings fan base concocts all sorts of trade scenarios that have Marcus Thornton leaving town, freeing up the starting two-guard slot for Ben. Thornton is dealt to the Juneau Frost Donkeys for a fast-melting glacier and two pounds of fresh salmon (not Salmons), The glacier promptly becomes the centerpiece of the Kings' defense, and Ben McLemore becomes your starting two-guard in his rookie season. Regardless, McLemore's development will be one of the most compelling story lines throughout the Kings' 2013-14 season.
Ben McLemore, Present Contributor & Future Cog: This is what I see as the most likely scenario, which automatically means that it is the least likely to occur. McLemore starts the season fourth in the guard rotation, behind Vasquez, Thornton and Thomas (there would be some occasions where Vasquez and Thomas play together). McLemore struggles with shot consistency very early in the season, and you can tell that he's pressing a bit. This winds up impacting his defensive play as well, as he blows more than his share of defensive assignment. But he settles down after a rocky few weeks. McLemore produces just well enough to earn an invitation to the "Futures" game during all-star weekend. His play increases throughout the season, though by season's end he still winds up fourth in guard minutes. He makes the second or third all-rookie team, and he looks like a guy that will be the starting two-guard for the Kings in 2014-15 and beyond.
Ben McLemore, No Consideration Granted for Draft Slot: McLemore comes into camp as the raw twenty year old that we know him to be. And while this rawness was a known quantity when the Kings drafted him, McLemore is granted no sympathy or consideration by Michael Malone's coaching staff. Oh, they invest a lot of time in McLemore and work with him in a constructive fashion, but by the time camp breaks he has yet to reach the caliber of Jimmer Fredette or John Salmons. Malone is adamant that the best and most-ready players get the minutes, and McLemore begins the season completely out of the core rotation. McLemore avoids Reno, as the home-heavy early season schedule of the Kings keeps him around where the coaching staff can continue to work with him. Injuries to other guards get him some spot minutes, and by the end of the season he is threatening to crack the core rotation, but few are sold on McLemore being the starting two-guard by the 2014-15 season.
Ben McLemore, Thomas Robinson for a New Generation: In a scenario that I can hardly even fathom, McLemore crashes and burns, and is left in the rear-view mirror as the coaching staff focuses on the players that are responding positively to the new system...both Thornton and Fredette are killing it. Unlike Robinson, McLemore is not dealt, but he does spend a good portion of the season in Reno. The fan base clamors for the Kings to start thinking about an extension for Jimmer Fredette.
I'm going with "Present Contributor & Future Cog." I just think that Thornton is way ahead of McLemore when it comes to understanding the NBA game and the speed at which it is played. Also, I have this wild notion that Thornton might actually be a willing defender in a system that demands defensive effort. Not a good defender, but a willing defender, and I think that is what Malone will be looking for this coming year. Thornton will be just a bit smarter at slipping screens and filling passing lanes than the inexperienced Thornton, and that will make a difference in the final analysis.
There is also the matter that Thornton has a proven NBA scorer's mentality, which is going to be a very important factor if Vasquez and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute make up forty percent of the starting lineup. McLemore's chances of starting probably improve slightly if Isaiah Thomas wins the starting point guard job.
It will be very interesting to see how McLemore's development and playing time wrings out this season. On the one hand, you know that ownership and management is dying to see a rapid return on investment on their very first player acquisition. On the other hand, coach Malone must stay true to his mantra that the best and most-ready players play, as it is most critical that his system is introduced to and embraced by the players. I think that the balancing act of these two points will result in specific and limited opportunities for McLemore early on, designed in part to boost his confidence and create some momentum for him. Malone can then utilize that momentum to systematically grow McLemore's role as the season progresses.