Return of the Mc: Ben McLemore improves in year two
Just 21 years old, Ben McLemore sat in front of his locker after the Kings’ 2013-14 regular-season finale, a loss to the Phoenix Suns. He answered reporters’ questions about his 31-point, 5-assist, 5-rebound performance. He knew it, and they knew it: his performance that night was an outlier. Whether or not that sentiment was verbalized, there was no getting around the fact that the No. 7 overall pick’s rookie season had been an utter disappointment, featuring no shortage of struggles on both sides of the ball.
The big question lingered – how would he respond to this setback, a season in which he shot 37.6 percent from the field (32.0 percent from deep) and struggled to defend his opponents on most nights?
While Kings head coach Michael Malone was supportive of his young shooting guard all season, management opted to spend its 2014 first-round pick on yet another shooting guard, University of Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas.
According to McLemore, the team drafting another shooting guard motivated him to some extent, but he has always set high expectations for himself.
“It just pushed me to just keep getting better each and every day,” McLemore told Cowbell Kingdom before the Kings took on the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday night. “Them drafting Nik Stauskas wasn’t like ‘Aw, man. Now I gotta step my game up.’ That’s the type of player I am. I’m gonna step my game up regardless and get better as a player. It’s just another opportunity getting better going against another guy that’s playing my position.”
The moment the Suns game ended in mid-April, McLemore’s offseason began. In college at the University of Kansas, as well as in Sacramento, he’s been known as an incredibly hard worker, but there remained a level of uncertainty as to how exactly McLemore would translate his offseason training into a significantly better second season.
With the exception of the Kings’ first four games, McLemore has looked like a completely different player. After averaging 3.8 points on 26.3 percent shooting through four contests, McLemore finally seemed to find the consistent shooting stroke he lacked last season. Since the suspect start to the season, he’s shooting 49.4 percent from the floor and 40.0 percent from long range, while averaging 13.1 points. Just as important, he is earning more than 35 minutes per game.
After a Las Vegas Summer League in which McLemore failed to separate himself from Stauskas, there was serious speculation that Stauskas could supplant McLemore as the starting two-guard. Even if that didn’t wind up the case, there could have easily been a scenario with the guys splitting minutes.
As a result of McLemore’s huge improvement and Stauskas’ miserable start (2.8 ppg, 29.7 FG%), the minutes distribution has heavily favored the second-year pro. In fact, since Nov. 5, McLemore has garnered nearly three times the number of minutes as Stauskas.
So what exactly has changed for the young guard?
“I think it started in me just slowing down, letting the game slow down to me,” said McLemore. “And having my own type of pace and speed in the game. Also just working on catching the ball, different ways of dribbling and stuff like that. In the first year, I would not be as comfortable as I am as this season right here.”
Help from a veteran teammate has also worked wonders.
“I think I was moving a little too fast again (in the first four games),” said McLemore, “just like (my) rookie year. Actually, Reggie (Evans) told me, ‘Hey man, just slow down a little bit. Just get back to how you’ve been playing.’ Stuff like that helps a lot.”
His head coach maintained that McLemore’s improvement hasn’t surprised him in the slightest.
“I’m not surprised just because I’ve seen firsthand how hard he’s worked, not just on the court but even just watching film with that coaching staff and studying the game, studying his opponents,” Malone said last week of McLemore’s development. “It’s not just about being able to make shots. Ben struggled defensively last year. I think he’s doing a much better job on defense this year, locking in, knowing who he’s guarding.”
Last season, McLemore was a defensive liability. While he still has plenty of room for improvement on that end, early-season indications provide evidence for Malone’s claim. According to 82games.com, McLemore’s Simple Rating has transformed from a putrid -7.1 last season to a much more respectable +2.6. Although two-thirds of that improvement has come courtesy of McLemore’s offensive progress, the rest has been thanks to his elevated defense.
This year, opponents are producing a 15.4 Player Efficiency Rating against McLemore, down from 16.8 a season ago. Meanwhile, McLemore’s Defensive Efficiency rating (how the Kings perform defensively while he’s on the floor) has improved from 1.11 to 1.05.
McLemore was regularly asked about his confidence level last season. He would usually say he felt confident, but “my confidence is on another level,” McLemore acknowledged Tuesday. “These last couple of games, I’ve just been playing with confidence, going out there just playing my game, having fun, letting the game come to me.”
Even the most confident of players needs to be reminded from time to time to trust in himself and stay aggressive. Malone cited the Kings’ road win over the Timberwolves as an example of what happens when his starting shooting guard plays assertively. In a game that the Kings trailed at the half, Malone said he “got on him (McLemore) at halftime.” McLemore promptly came out of the tunnel and scored 13 points in the first five-and-a-half minutes of the third quarter, including three 3-pointers.
“He’s playing with so much more confidence,” said Malone. “He’s not hesitating, and that’s something I keep on preaching to both he and Nik Stauskas. ‘If you’re open, shoot. Step back, make a shot.’”
Although on-court, off-court net ratings are naturally a product of one’s teammates and not just individual production, it is telling that McLemore’s net rating has improved from to -3.7 to +17.1.
The complete picture is far from rosy, however. Last season, McLemore ranked 326th of 337 qualifying players according to John Hollinger’s PER. Though not quite as bad, he still ranks 268th of 333 players this season. The main two reasons for McLemore’s low PER? His abysmal assist rate (1.1 assists per 36 minutes) and an extremely low frequency of getting to the free-throw line (1.4 FTA/36).
As of now, neither recording assists nor drawing fouls is a significant component of McLemore’s game, and that’s OK. For a 21-year-old player in just his second professional season, what’s most important is that the confidence has arrived, the shots are finally falling and the defense has shown signs of improvement. If McLemore can manage to stay consistent, his sophomore season will undoubtedly be considered a major success.