It's been a rocky 14 months for Ben McLemore. In the eyes of the collective Sacramento fanbase, he flipped from lottery favorite to total bust and landed somewhere in between by the end of last season. He went from being the one respectable shooting guard on the Kings depleted roster to contending with a sharpshooting rookie for playing time. Aside from DeMarcus Cousins, is there a harder player to figure out on the Kings roster than McLemore?
The biggest negative for McLemore's rookie season-aside from his lack of defensive awareness-was his inability to play up to the sky-high expectations placed on him by the hungry Sacramento fans. Not that Kings faithful were fully too blame for their excitement-the team was here to stay, AND a player who'd been mocked as a top selection had fallen to No. 7. Fan expectation fueled by rave reviews of McLemore's potential (Vivek Ranadive called him the team's "dream choice") set the rookie up so disappointment was pretty much inevitable.
Aside from his NBA athleticism, McLemore was still an all-around raw player. Even worse, thanks to a suddenly apathetic Marcus Thornton, he was forced into a bigger role then his skills were ready for. By the All-Star break, he was averaging 7.6 points on 36.6% shooting and looked lost on defense, and Kings fans went from ecstatic to near panic in eight months flat. When McLemore's name popped up in trade rumors, it seemed the turnaround was complete.
With McLemore entering his second season and Nik Stauskas in contention for his starting role, it's time to provide McLemore with realistic expectations going forward, rather than the sky-high/sky-is-falling levels the fanbase hit last year. If last year taught anything, it's that patience is needed-McLemore needs to show patience on the court, and fans need to show patience in McLemore's growth.
While McLemore's 2014 Summer League statistics didn't show huge improvement, he played with more aggression and confidence than he showed in his rookie season. He still had lapses of inconsistency, and he still had issues with ball control (3.8 turnovers a contest), but overall he showed growth on both ends of the court. While he played more aggressively, he also slowed down and let the game come to him, the most encouraging sign of his development. Now that he's had a full year in the NBA, hopefully McLemore will continue to show that aggression and that patience when the regular season starts.
While he was brought in to be a shooter (43.7% of his shots were from three), McLemore struggled with the longer NBA three point shots. From the corner threes, he shot 42%, but he converted just 28.4% from the rest of the three point line. While the Kings can run plays to get McLemore those corner looks, especially with a great passing big like Cousins, McLemore will have to prove he can hit the longer three point shots with much greater consistency.
McLemore will also need to continue to improve on his offensive decision making and his dribbling skills; he finished last season with a 1/1.2 assist to turnover ratio, a very poor number for a two guard. While the Kings offense didn't begin to jell until the latter half of the season, McLemore was one of the players who struggled most to find his role. Cementing that role and cutting down on the bad passes/dribbles will be as big a key for him as finding consistency on his long-ball.
On defense, McLemore mostly needs further experience. His defensive awareness was awful last season, and he struggled to stick to his assignments-he was the biggest reasons the Kings finished with the second-worst three point defense last season. He wasn't a passive defender by any means, but he constantly moved off his mark to provide help defense and lost track of where he was supposed to be.
Moving forward, there isn't any reason to think McLemore can't become a good-to-great NBA defender, given his solid size, and above-average athleticism, but it all comes down to experience. With another season of practice, I expect him to be an average NBA defender by seasons end, as long as he learns to stick closer to great outside shooters.
By all accounts, McLemore is an exceptional worker with a genuine desire to succeed in the league, which are the two best traits for any young NBA player. Yet given how raw McLemore still is, a massive leap forward isn't realistic. McLemore has the talent, physical abilities and drive to be an All-Star level player, but he isn't just one or two skills away from reaching that peak.
His sophomore season with the Kings will be huge for McLemore's development and for his eventual long-term role with the franchise. My expectation is that the inconsistencies will continue into the first half of the season, albeit less frequent than in his rookie year-but by the end of the campaign, I expect McLemore will have shown significant growth and secured himself in the starting role. It won't be the breakout season, but a solid step forward with a growing number of reminders as to why the fanbase was excited about McLemore in the first place.
(Statistics in this article courtesy of basketball-reference.com and nba.com)