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Ben McLemore is starting to figure it out

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Kimani Okearah

Ben McLemore had lost his starting role after just four games to some combination of James Anderson, Darren Collison, and Marco Belinelli. He had been on the verge of falling out of the rotation completely, but due to an increased aggressiveness (we've only been saying that this is how he needs to play for his entire career), he's scratched and clawed his way back into the starting lineup, and he’s been playing some of the best basketball of his career since.

The Kings’ win on November 12th in Brooklyn was where the Ben McLemore we had been sold finally showed up. He played 24 minutes in that game, scored 15 points, and shot three-of-four from three. It was that performance that caused Karl to move him from a marginal bench role back to starting shooting guard, and McLemore has played really well since then. The Kings are 3-2 since Ben’s emergence.

Prior to the Brooklyn breakout, McLemore wasn’t a productive basketball player. We’re talking 5 points on 35.6% shooting from the field, and 29.4% shooting from three. Karl could barely afford to keep him on the court, so he starting to keep him off it.  From Brooklyn on, McLemore has given the Kings 11.8 points on a 47.8 FG%, shooting an unsustainable-but-welcome 61.1% from three.

Numbers are great, but McLemore has never really been a stats guy. His role is still so limited, his opportunities for impact are so rare, and he hasn’t been able to lock in on defense, or really hit the glass when his offense fails him. That has been one of my biggest gripes with McLemore. He’s become so one-dimensional that if he isn’t giving the Kings scoring, he really isn’t giving them anything.

He’s always been a ‘has all the tools!’ guy, which is great if those raw attributes develop. They haven’t yet, but we still see flashes of that guy we all want him to be. He’s not a smart defender, but we’ve seen him play steady defense. He’s not a great passer, but we’ve seen instances of good court vision, and while we are starting to run out of time with his development, I know he’s not whatever he’s going to be. The trouble is figuring out if what he’s going to be is worth keeping him around for.

That was the conundrum. I’m not going to pretend like all is perfect with Ben McLemore right now, but this is what the Kings need to see in order to justify his starting role. He has to give the team something. He wasn’t doing that earlier in the season, but he’s doing it now.

McLemore’s return also gives us a great example of the dangers of taking early season numbers and displaying them as fact. Ben’s five game stretch of solid play has taken him from one of the most disappointing and poor three-point shooters on the team to the best. He’s shooting .457 from three on the season now, well above his position-mate Marco Belinelli, and he’s even surpassed Omri Casspi and Darren Collison. What a difference ten days can make.

Over this five game stretch, 95% of McLemore’s field goals are assisted. NINETY-FIVE PERCENT. That is absurdly high. If anything, he’s been more aggressive with his shot, because he certainly isn’t creating his own offense. Prior to the last five games, 75% of McLemore’s field goals were assisted, which is still high, but could suggest he’s doing a more efficient job at picking his spots.

You can also credit Rajon Rondo, if you’re in to that sort of thing. Rondo has assisted on 14 of McLemore’s 22 field goals over the last five games. If we want to dig a little deeper into that 95% assisted field goals number, McLemore has made exactly one unassisted field goal since the Brooklyn game. Crazy. How much of his improved play can we attribute to a conscience effort by Rondo to get him going? It’s hard to say. After all, we’re only talking about a five game stretch here. There are no absolutes.

Anecdotally, McLemore has always been a guy that frustrated me in that he doesn’t shoot enough, often deciding to forgo an open shot for an ill-advised take to the rim, or an unnecessary pass leading to a worse shot for the offense. What we could be dealing with here is rather simple – maybe he’s just taking the shots he’s supposed to take? They are assisted because they are supposed to be, and while he may not be as aggressive creating his own shot, he has been more aggressive as a shooter. The numbers support that. McLemore shooting the ball when passed to is the ultimate example of accentuating the positives and hiding the negatives. The best McLemore is a shooter, the worst McLemore is the one trying to make plays off his suspect handle.

He’s taken more shots (46) over the last five games than he had in the previous nine (45). He’s also shooting 58.3% on what NBA.com considers ‘wide open’ shots (shots where closest defender is 6+ feet away), and he had only been hitting them at 33% before his turnaround.

Everything is better. We know that. How sustainable this production is, and the tangible reason for his improvement, are unknown at this time. Was it as simple as Karl’s benching offering Ben a moment to reflect and regroup? Was it as simple as McLemore taking (and making) shots that should be taken (and made)? Is it Rondo finding his productive spots on the floor?

It’s probably a combination of all of that, and then some. He’s playing better than any other shooting guard on this roster right now, which is so far from where McLemore was just ten days ago. The Kings need this Ben to be the Ben, and I don’t think his improved play along with the Kings’ improved play is just a coincidence.