With less than a week to go until the regular season opener, much is unsettled about the Sacramento Kings’ lineup and rotation. Outside of center, head coach Michael Malone has plenty of decisions to make, including on his starting five.
Entering training camp, the starting shooting guard spot appeared to be veteran Marcus Thornton’s to lose. But along with Jimmer Fredette, it seems Ben McLemore has played himself into the conversation.
“You look at what he’s done in the preseason,” Malone said earlier this week of the rookie guard. “The numbers he has, his rebounding,which people don’t talk about – he’s done a great job rebounding the basketball – shooting it. He’s really kind of understanding our team defensive concepts.
“We have three 2-guards that you can make a case for all those guys starting,” Malone added.
McLemore’s numbers in the exhibition season have been impressive and a far cry from his performance in Summer League. Through six games, McLemore has averaged 12 points, 3.5 rebounds and shot better than 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc.
McLemore has accomplished these stellar number as a key reserve off the Kings’ bench. The 20-year-old guard has started in none of the Kings’ six exhibition outings, but coming off the bench is a role with which he’s comfortable. As he makes the transition from college to the pros, playing with the second unit has helped him sharpen his understanding of the game.
“I’m very comfortable when I get out there,” McLemore said recently. “When I’m on the bench, I see, watching the floor, what I can do out there… (I can) just go out there with a lot of energy, just go out there and have fun and just play my game.”
Malone hasn’t ruled out the possibility of starting McLemore, but he does seem to prefer having the rookie come off the bench. Malone thinks that McLemore’s role in the second unit alleviates some of the scrutiny that the first-year guard will have to deal with this season.
“I like bringing him off the bench right now because I think there’s no pressure for him,” Malone said. “He can come in, play his game. And I want him to be aggressive, I want him to play with great confidence and if he makes a mistake, make a mistake while being aggressive.”
Teammate Isaiah Thomas agrees with Malone’s sentiment. The third-year point guard has nothing but praise for McLemore’s talents and abilities, but what will separate McLemore from the rest of the pack will be his belief in himself.
“I think he’s just got to stay aggressive, man,” Thomas said. “Whether you miss 20 shots or whether you make 20, you gotta think your next shot’s going in. I think it’s all confidence with him.
“He has the ability to be great,” the 24-year-old point guard continued. “I mean he has the potential to be a very good shooting guard in this league – athleticism, he can shoot it with the best with them.”
Some NBA coaches pigeonhole rookies into simplified roles despite their undeniable talent, but not Malone. The new Kings coach believes in taking each first-year player on a case-by-case basis. He pointed out LeBron James, his former study with the Cleveland Cavaliers, as a prime example of a player who needed no slow introduction to the NBA.
McLemore, on the other hand, probably needs a little more time. And right now, playing against second-tier competition could be beneficial to his development.
“Most nights off the bench, he’ll be playing against their bench players, which is also I think an advantage for him,” Malone said. “So this is an education for him, it’s a maturation process and to his credit, he’s done a phenomenal job…”
Added McLemore: “It’s coach’s decision whether he’s going to start me or whether he wants to keep me coming off the bench. Right now, I feel comfortable just coming off the bench. With the role that I’m playing right now, I’m doing great so I want to keep that consistency up.”