Ben McLemore discusses his roller-coaster rookie season

Ben McLemore has a conversation with an official. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Nothing in life has come easy for 21-year-old Ben McLemore. Taken by the Sacramento Kings with the seventh overall selection in the 2013 NBA Draft, the rookie guard has had plenty of highs and lows in his first season in the league. But these trials pale in comparison to what the former Kansas star has seen in his life.

As the season nears a close, the game is finally beginning to slow down for McLemore. His numbers don’t jump off the page, but you can see that he is narrowing the gap between potential and production. At break-neck speed, he is learning to be a better player, while balancing a new life of riches and fame.

Before the Kings took on the Knicks Wednesday night in Sacramento, we sat down with the talented rookie to take a moment and reflect on his incredible journey so far.

CK: Walk me through that first game. A lot of people don’t know that you had never attended an NBA game before your first game as a pro.

BM: Opening night, I think was the biggest moment. Just stepping out there on the court, getting ready to play an NBA game, I think I was very nervous, but as the game went on and I got out there on the floor, I was happy to be out there and I was ready to play.

CK: What was it like to walk out there in front of 17,314 screaming Sacramento fans that first game?

BM: It was crazy. Playing at Kansas with 16,300 every night and then coming to an even more incredible crowd. The fanbase is unbelieveable. It was very exciting and I was happy to be there representing the Sacramento Kings.

CK: You mentioned Kansas. How difficult was it for you to sit back and watch the tournament with your old squad running Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins out there. You have these great players and you could have been a sophomore playing with that group.

BM: You’re right, I could have been out there playing with those guys and just having fun playing Kansas basketball with those guys. But at the same time, I made a great decision to come to the NBA. I definitely don’t regret that. I have a great opportunity right now in a great situation.

CK: You look at coach Self and his coaching staff and I know you have lot of respect for him. You are the third former Kansas player to come through Sacramento over the last few years and each of you have a common thread in that your personal stories behind the scenes are about as difficult a road to the NBA as possible. Darnell Jackson’s story is rough. Thomas Robinson’s story is very similar to his and your story of just surviving is just incredible. Why is it that you think coach Self and his staff go after players with tough backgrounds?

BM: I think it’s because those are the type of guys that he likes, guys that didn’t come out of their high schools as the top players or McDonald’s All-Americans. He wants guys that he knows will go out there and work. Guys that didn’t have nothing and always want to go out there and work for their stuff. That’s the type of guys that their whole organization love.

CK: You’ve had this really odd season in Sacramento, where you’ve seen the entire spectrum of an NBA player’s life. You’re the young kid coming in, but you were brought in to replace a veteran in Marcus Thornton. You’ve got Jimmer Fredette that doesn’t get his contract extended. You have Orlando Johnson signing 10-day contracts trying to keep his dream alive. What has it been like to watch the life cycle of an NBA player?

BM: Being rookies, me and Ray McCallum have seen so much stuff this season. People here and there and then they’re gone. But at the same time, we learn that it’s a business – the NBA’s a business. And we have to realize that, it’s just the way it is.

CK: How has the transition been from being a kid that was raised with very little, to all of the sudden, you have a whole lot of money? And I’m sure you have a whole lot of people that want things from you. How has that process been for you?

BM: I think it’s been great. I really haven’t had a problem. My family – as long as my mom, my sisters and brothers are fine, that’s the people I’m looking out for. I’ve got a lot of family and they know my situation and they understand that I did this and I’ve worked hard to get in this position.

CK: I’ve heard a rumor that you are going back to Kansas this summer to take classes again.

BM: Yes, sir.

CK: Why is that important to you?

BM: It’s very important because I want to get my degree. I was the first one out of my family to go to a university and I would be the first to have a degree. To look back and tell my kids that their dad got his degree in college, to tell them that this is important, that school is important. And my mom would be proud. She’d be even more proud if I got my degree.

CK: You had this incredible moment in the middle of the season where you got to go and partake in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest. That’s got to be almost every kid’s dream growing up. What was that like?

BM: Man, that was a great experience. Hopefully I’ll be back there next year playing in different events. I think it was a great opportunity for me to build my brand. To let everyone see who I am. I had fun down there. I met a lot of different people and different players.

CK: What do you have to work on this summer to reach the next level?

BM: My all-around game as far as shooting, dribbling and things like that. And also, staying fit, making sure I eat the right things during the summer, working out, not to get bigger, but to gain more mass and fill out. Because next year is going to be a great year for me. I’m going to go hard all summer and come back ready.

CK: In 12 games in March, you’ve settled down a bit. You’re averaging 9.3 points while shooting 43 percent from the field. What is it that’s clicking for you down the stretch?

BM: I’m starting to slow down and just let the game come to me, that’s the main thing. I’m starting to learn more and build off of what I need to do and how to get better. I think the main thing is slowing down. I was moving like a Ferrari out there. I’m being more aggressive too. The coaches have been on me to be more aggressive and to go out there and have fun. I’ve found my rhythm since the beginning of March and I want to keep it like that until the season’s over.

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About: James Ham

James Ham is co-owner and senior editor of Cowbell Kingdom, providing extensive Kings coverage through news analysis, in-depth interviews with players and staff and daily coverage of breaking news. Along with providing original content for the site, including the Cowbell Kingdom Podcast and his weekly Sunday Musings column, James also is one of the producers behind the award-winning, independent documentary film "Small Market, Big Heart".