If this reads as a piggy back off of CSN Kings insider James Ham’s latest column on the Kings shooting guards, it’s because it kind of is. Ham wrote about a lot of the things I’ve been pondering throughout training camp and preseason, but I wanted to dig a little deeper in to what’s going on with Ben McLemore right now.
Shooting guard has been the Kings’ weakest position since the Kings selected Ben McLemore in 2013-14. I don’t hold that against Ben, and I applaud the Kings for giving their rookie guard that much playing time that early. If a team isn’t a playoff contender, play the young guys. I’ll always be in favor of that approach.
McLemore struggled mightily as a rookie, and while his poor play didn’t bother me (get that out of your system!) it was concerning. A minor concern, but a concern none the less. You obviously want to see rookies show competence in some areas, and you’d like to see clear flashes of what they will become. We are seeing exactly that with Willie Cauley-Stein in just a handful of preseason games. Of course, Cauley-Stein is much older now than McLemore was as a rookie (McLemore's only 6 months older than Cauley-Stein). You could argue pretty easily that McLemore could have benefited from another year or two of college ball, but here we are.
We saw some tangible improvement out of McLemore last season, but much like his rookie year, competition at shooting guard was nonexistent, and any playoff expectations for this team died when Michael Malone was fired. Even with McLemore’s improvements, the Kings had some of, if not the worst shooting guard play in the entire NBA. McLemore was still extremely limited offensively. His outside shot was much better, his handle was slightly improved, but nowhere near acceptable guard level, and his defense was still really hit or miss. On-ball, he was fine, off the ball, it wasn’t good.
I am a McLemore skeptic. I was when the Kings drafted him, and he hasn’t improved enough to make me reconsider that skepticism. Of course, I want to be wrong, but his preseason play hasn’t been encouraging, and I think the Kings are done waiting for him to arrive. He has to make a leap this season.
He has legitimate shooting guard competition for the first time in his career. Marco Belinelli is here, Darren Collison can play with Rajon Rondo, and you could argue that both James Anderson and Seth Curry have showed comparable play in four preseason games. The sample size is too small to determine anything concrete, but again, you’d rather have McLemore look good, clearly. This team also has high, realistic expectations for the first time since McLemore turned pro. A playoff bid is the goal, but improvement over last season is not only expected, but required. If this is another sub-30 win season, something went horribly wrong.
McLemore had his best preseason game on Saturday night. What did his best stat line look like? 8 points, 2 assists, 1 rebound, on 1-3 shooting and 5-6 from the free throw line. Not exactly something you’d normally consider an impressive performance, but it was better than it has been. Beyond the numbers, though, it looked like he found some rhythm. He was getting some transition opportunities, the team was pushing the pace a bit more, and McLemore is much better getting out on the break than he is in the half-court. He showed us something. He wasn't invisible out there. It's a start.
This is speculative on my part, but it’s always felt like a confidence and aggression issue with Ben. It looks like he loses his confidence on the court very quickly, and he’s not nearly aggressive enough with his offense, partly because he’s a pretty easy player to defend. Watching Belinelli handle the ball some for the second unit has been jarring to watch, and an alarming reminder at how little McLemore handles the ball as the off guard, either because that skill hasn’t developed yet, or because he doesn't have the confidence to try and (potentially) fail.
The Kings allow their players the freedom to handle the ball when they feel like they can make a play, even if they don’t necessarily have the kind of ball handling ability you’d prefer. Point-Boogie comes to mind, but we see Rudy Gay handle the ball quite a bit, too, and this is a pure guess on my part, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Omri Casspi handles the ball more per minute than Ben McLemore. I don’t think it’s a ‘we don’t want McLemore dribbling’ rule as much as it is a confidence issue. He is a hard worker. We’ve heard this so many times that I’d consider it fact at this point. He’s in the gym a lot, presumably working on his weaknesses, but when it comes to translating those improvements to in game action, we just don’t see it. I can barely tell his ball handling has improved because he rarely handles the ball. It looks better than it did in his rookie season, but I’d sure like to see McLemore show some confidence with it and try to make some aggressive plays off the dribble.
All of that is to say I still want him starting at shooting guard when the regular season begins on October 28th, but I expect his leash to be a lot shorter than it has been in his rookie and sophomore seasons. If he doesn’t show considerable improvement, it wouldn’t surprise me if Belinelli plays more minutes than McLemore while McLemore is starting, particularly in crunch time. If the Kings are going to contend for the 8th seed this season, I don’t think they can afford another developmental season out of Ben McLemore. They need him to be an active contributor on a consistent basis. He wasn’t as a rookie, he wasn’t last season, and he hasn’t been in four preseason games.