Ben McLemore’s failure to launch

Ben McLemore with his hands on his knees against the New Orleans Pelicans. (Photo: Jonathan Santiago)

Ben McLemore is certainly not in Kansas anymore.

Precisely one year ago, the 20-year-old college freshman had just finished a spectacular regular-season campaign with the Kansas Jayhawks. He led the team in scoring, thanks to a sweet shooting stroke as well as an impressively athletic burst to the basket.

McLemore’s Jayhawks proceeded to sweep the Big 12 Tournament and as a result, earn a No. 1 seed heading into the NCAA Tournament. For the season, the St. Louis native averaged 15.9 points per game on 49.5 percent shooting and 42.0 percent from beyond the arc. He was money.

Now in Sacramento, the 2013 seventh overall pick’s shot seems to have deserted him. He shows occasional flashes as one would expect from such a high draft pick, but his play hasn’t been consistent. On back-to-back nights in late-January, McLemore strung together a combined 32 points, only to follow those performances with a six-game stretch of 5.5 points per game on 32.5 percent shooting.

While McLemore’s shot has regressed – at least statistically-speaking – every month from November through February, the hope remains that the promising shooting guard will rediscover what made him so successful in college.

“He’s good enough and he’s a hard-enough worker that he’s gonna be great in this league as soon as he gets more confidence and gets more comfortable with the way that they (the Kings) play,” says his former Kansas teammate Jeff Withey, who now plays for the New Orleans Pelicans.

“He needs to just get more confident,” Withey emphasized. “That’s all it is.”

At Kansas, McLemore shared ample court time with seniors Travis Releford, Elijah Johnson, Kevin Young and Withey, but has played with a relatively young core in Sacramento this season.

“When he was a freshman at Kansas, he had a bunch of seniors around him, and we kind of were able to take him under our wing and try to help him through it,” said Withey. “It obviously worked out really well for him, because he was the stud at Kansas. And he’s got guys around him here that are gonna help grow him into a great player.”

Kings point guard Isaiah Thomas similarly stressed the importance of maintaining confidence as his rookie teammate aims to improve.

“Just staying confident,” Thomas said of what he advises McLemore. “Don’t let your highs get too high, don’t let your lows get too low and just going out there and playing your hardest. I mean, some nights you’re not going to have it…but don’t let that dictate how hard you can play.”

McLemore’s apparent lack of confidence has manifested in fewer drives to the basket and, consequently, fewer trips to the line. Last season at Kansas, the 6-foot-5 guard earned more than 3.7 free-throw attempts per night; in his inaugural pro season, he’s down to just 1.4.

In particular, the rookie guard has struggled to create his own shot, partially as a result of shoddy ball handling. He, then, has relied too heavily on his teammates, who have not moved the ball well for him under Sacramento’s pick-and-roll-heavy system.

Midway through the season, coach Michael Malone expressed his desire for McLemore to better utilize the same athletic ability NBA fans would later see on display at this year’s dunk contest in New Orleans.

“I think as the defense improves, he can get out in transition, attack the basket and use his athleticism,” Malone said recently of McLemore. “And then in the half court, he’s gotta be able to find a healthy balance of, yes, he can knock down the three-point shot, but don’t become reliant on it. You’re too explosive, too athletic. He should be getting to the rim, and he should be getting to the foul line a lot more.”

Coming into the season, McLemore’s body type, along with his textbook outside shooting form and that aforementioned athleticism, garnered comparisons to 17-year veteran Ray Allen. The 21-year-old’s two games against Allen’s Heat can be seen as a microcosm of his inconsistent season thus far.

In their first head-to-head meeting on Dec. 20, McLemore may have had his best shooting night all season. Going against Allen, the rookie poured in 20 points, while converting 8-of-13 shots, including 4-of-7 from 3-point range. Ironically, Allen also made 8-of-13 field goals that night, on his way to 18 points. Just a week later, McLemore finished with two points and three turnovers in 24 minutes of action (Ray Allen didn’t play).

At this point, however, comparisons to future of Hall of Famer Ray Allen – or anyone else for that matter – are not only ridiculously premature; they’re also unfair. He’s just starting out in the league and has plenty of time to figure things out. We don’t yet know if he will become a star, a reliable role player or worst-case scenario, be out of the league within five years’ time. His career is still an open book.

At the same time, McLemore’s youth (he’s 11 months away from his 22nd birthday) is not a legitimate excuse for his lack of improvement. But there may be some hope on the horizon.

After seeing his field-goal and three-point percentages dip every month since November, March has been very kind to the first-year pro. Although the month is not even halfway done, McLemore’s 51.1-percent clip represents major progress. It’s leaps-and-bounds better than his previous best month of 39.3 percent, which he achieved in November. He’s also starting to earn more free-throw attempts this month.

Even so, seven games is far too small of a sample size to fairly assert that McLemore has morphed into a consistent offensive player. He’ll have to put in serious work, both mentally and physically, in order to become consistent, let alone great.

Fortunately, the young shooting guard is a tremendously hard worker according to many of his Kings teammates, as well as ex-college teammate.

“He’s gonna probably be in the gym this whole summer (just) trying to get better,” said Withey

By now, McLemore knows he’s not in Kansas anymore, but there’s ample time for him to find his Yellow Brick Road. Finishing his rookie campaign on a strong note could do wonders for McLemore’s confidence, but the work he puts in over the summer may be just as huge.

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About: Aaron Fischman

Fischman is an editor and contributing feature writer for Cowbell Kingdom. The Los Angeles native graduated in 2011 from UC Davis with his Bachelor's Degree in Political Science and Communication and received his Master's in Print and Digital Journalism from USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2013. Besides CK, Fischman has covered the WNBA's Los Angeles Sparks for SLAM and the Clippers for Clipper Blog, an ESPN.com TrueHoop Network Affiliate.