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A Look at Ben McLemore's Rookie Season

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The former Kansas star struggled in Sacramento last year. What went wrong?

Ronald Martinez

Everyone remembers Ben McLemore’s 20th birthday - 30 points, 7 rebounds and 3 steals for the Kansas freshman. In perhaps his best game as a Jayhawk, McLemore led KU to an 83-62 victory against in-state rival Kansas State. The good game was not uncommon for Ben, as he was a key player in Kansas’ 2012-13 squad. McLemore had an amazing season with Kansas, averaging 15.9 points. Perhaps his most memorable moment with as a Jayhawk was his game tying buzzer beater against Iowa State. Overall, McLemore was a stud in college and one of the top prospects heading into the NBA draft.

What has Ben McLemore been up to since? After leaving Kansas, McLemore headed to California’s capital city, as he was drafted number seven overall by the Sacramento Kings in the 2013 draft. After eventually losing Tyreke Evans in free agency, a struggling Sacramento franchise decided that Ben McLemore would be the future shooting guard. The fans praised the pick and it marked the first roster move for the new ownership. Comparisons to Ray Allen showed what kind of expectations basketball fans had for McLemore.

The season got off to a rocky start for Ben, who struggled to find his shot and dropped his field goal percentage to a poor 37%. Known for his great 3 point shooting, McLemore also struggled beyond the arc last year, posting a 32% from 3 making his most valuable asset his worst. Mental mistakes also plagued McLemore’s rookie campaign. There are many areas upon which McLemore can improve. Shooting, for one, is a big part of McLemore’s game which needs to be worked on. That shouldn’t be a huge issue though. He proved in college that he has the ability to put up good numbers; it’s just a matter of adapting to the NBA level and getting good looks. His defense definitely needs help, but Sacramento is impressed with his athleticism and his size. Perhaps his biggest weakness right now is his ball-handling skills. There’s not much to speculate on whether he can improve on that or not. McLemore turned out to be a bigger project than previously thought.

What went wrong? You can make excuses all you want but the fact of the matter is that this was Ben McLemore’s rookie year. You can’t expect a rookie to replicate what he did in college in his first year in the NBA. Sure, there are a handful of rookies who exceed expectations, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Not only was McLemore thrown into a new system, but the entire team was too. Having just hired Mike Malone, the Kings wanted to focus primarily on defense. The new coaching philosophy was a shift from Bill Self’s system in college. With various new players on the Kings, there needed to be time for them to gel together. Although this was a team wide issues, it shouldn't be an excuse for McLemore’s struggles. For a team that emphasized defense, McLemore didn’t fit well in his rookie year. His defense was mediocre at best, often letting defenders have their way with him. This was also the first time that McLemore wasn’t the star or main option. He wasn’t even one of the top five options for Sacramento. Like many rookies before him, a bad rookie year came with a diminished confidence. Fans argue that McLemore doesn’t have the drive to be successful and that his motivation is lacking, but they forget to mention that the NBA season is almost twice as long as the college season. Fatigue and hitting a wall in the middle of the season isn’t uncommon.

This was not the first time a former Jayhawk struggled in Sacramento. Thomas Robinson was drafted by the Kings in 2012 after having a stellar junior year at Kansas. Fans hoped that pairing up Robinson with DeMarcus Cousins would form a dominant front court in Sacramento. Robinson started the season off slowly and struggled during his tenure as a King. After a few months into the season, the Kings gave up on Robinson and shipped him off to Houston for essentially nothing.

Many feared that McLemore was destined to the same fate as Robinson. In the weeks leading up to the draft, McLemore’s name came up in various trade rumors, specifically involving the Boston Celtics and Rajon Rondo. The Kings ended up holding on to McLemore but drafted Nik Stauskas out of Michigan, a move that many thought might mark the end for McLemore’s time in Sacramento.

Still, many basketball fans are optimistic that McLemore will turn it around. He’ll definitely have a chance to prove himself next year, as he comes into training camp as the consensus starting shooting guard. His ceiling is still pretty high and he’s not the first player ever to struggle in his first year. What leaves fans even more optimistic about his future is the fact that McLemore improved significantly towards the end of last season. He had a career high 31 points on the last game of the season and had fifteen games with double-digits in the last two months of the season.

With Isaiah Thomas’ departure from the team, it leaves a scoring void which McLemore can absolutely fill. He’ll have more possessions and the team will be able to give him better looks now that Isaiah Thomas is gone. McLemore will most likely be the third option on this Kings team, behind DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, but that’s fine. It’ll give him time to develop into the player the Kings drafted him to be and it takes the pressure off of him to be the star player. Next season will most likely be another losing one for Sacramento, but McLemore looks to improve his game and hopes to be a key role in helping the Kings into a winner.