Like Peja Stojakovic, can Ben McLemore overcome rookie struggles?

Ben McLemore and Archie Goodwin of the Phoenix Suns. (Photo: Tobin Halsey)

Selected after Kobe Bryant and immediately before Steve Nash in the 1996 NBA Draft, Peja Stojakovic spent two more seasons in Europe before making his Sacramento Kings debut. When he finally made his way stateside, the 6-foot-9 Serbian forward was just 20 and still had some growing up to do both on and off the court.

Sounds awfully similar to Kings rookie Ben McLemore, who went pro after one season at Kansas and likewise showed inexperience with glimpses of potential during his rookie campaign.

“He went through the struggles of trying to learn the NBA game versus playing overseas and how physical it was,” says Kings assistant coach Corliss Williamson of Stojakovic, whom he played alongside for two seasons (’98-’00). Williamson played ahead of Stojakovic at small forward, but despite his competitive nature could already recognize the rookie’s tremendous potential.

When McLemore entered the league, he was also 20, but had always played at the amateur level. Stojakovic, on the other hand, had been playing professional basketball in Europe since the age of 16. Even so, Stojakovic’s inaugural NBA season came after the 1998-99 NBA Lockout, which meant that his rookie season would be significantly shortened.

“It affected everyone that year, even the veterans, just the timing of things,” says Williamson. “So instead of him having 82 games to develop, he only had 50 that year and did it in a short period of time. So it was tough coming in as a rookie after a lockout, during the shortened season, but as you can see, he recovered from that well.”

Stojakovic steadily improved the following season before becoming a full-blown star in his third year, but a closer look at Stojakovic’s rookie numbers could confuse even the most detailed of Kings observers. Why? Because his per-game averages look eerily similar to those of McLemore.

  • Stojakovic (1998-99): 8.4 PPG, 37.8 FG%, 32.0 3PT%, 3.7 3PA, 3.0 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.5 FTA
  • McLemore (2013-14): 8.8 PPG, 37.6 FG%, 32.0 3PT%, 3.6 3PA, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 1.7 FTA

Because McLemore started 55 games (Stojakovic started one during his rookie season) and played 5.3 more minutes per night (26.7 mpg compared to Peja’s 21.4), Stojakovic’s per-36 statistics look better than McLemore’s. With that said, both rooks struggled with their shot from all over the court and similarly failed to earn many trips to the charity stripe.

By his third NBA season, Stojakovic was sporting 20.4 points per game, a 40-percent 3-point stroke and suddenly getting to the line 4.2 times a night.

“As you play the game (and) you start watching other players play, you realize how they’re successful, you know that you can’t just rely on the jump shot all the time,” says Williamson. “You have to get to the free-throw line and the only way you do that is by attacking the basket, and he was good at it, especially with that corner offense that Rick Adelman ran. It was pretty much tailor-made to fit his type of game, and he flourished in that system.”

Like Stojakovic, according to Williamson, McLemore is an incredibly hard worker – a trait that will surely come in handy, as McLemore strives to improve his game going forward.

“Both of them love the game of basketball and want to work,” says Williamson. “Ben stays in after practices, before shoot-around, before practice, he’s always getting up extra shots. The same way with Peja. He’s a guy that really worked on his craft and wanted to do well.”

Besides the height – Stojakovic stands 6-foot-9, four inches taller than McLemore – Stojakovic possessed more all-around skills as a rookie, according to Williamson.

Before the final game of the season, McLemore concurred that he has ample work ahead of him heading into the offseason.

When asked what he needed to work on, the St. Louis native responded, “Man, my all-around game. Ballhandling, shooting, getting stronger, little things like that, just moving without the ball…little things like that to help and develop my game.”

In doing so, McLemore hopes to make a similar jump to what Stojakovic did 15 years prior. Observe the improvement in Stojakovic’s per-36 stats from Year 1 to Year 4.

  • Stojakovic (1st NBA season) – 14.1 points, 37.8 FG%, 32.0 3PT%, 2.6 FTA
  • Stojakovic (2nd season) – 18.1 points, 44.8 FG%, 37.5 3PT%, 3.1 FTA
  • Stojakovic (3rd season) – 18.9 points, 47.0 FG%, 40.0 3PT%, 3.9 FTA
  • Stojakkovic (4th season) – 20.5 points, 48.4 FG%, 41.6 3PT%, 4.4 FTA

Williamson witnessed first-hand Peja’s rookie struggles, as well as his improvement the following season. As an assistant coach, Williamson has also seen McLemore struggle despite possessing so much promise. So what does the Kansas product need to do in order to see improvement in the near future?

“Just staying in the gym, continuing to work, not only on the court, but also he does a good job of watching film, watching other players, watching his minutes to see what he needs to do better, where he can improve,” says Williamson.

“I’m anxious to see how he’s gonna come back his second year once he’s had a chance to sit down and clear his mind, because he’s had a lot of information thrown at him over the past eight, nine months.”

One brilliant game from McLemore won’t erase a subpar rookie season, but the 31-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist effort in the season finale against the Suns has the potential to jumpstart what figures to be the most important offseason of the 21-year-old’s life. And it all starts now.

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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.