Ben McLemore has become the face of Kansas basketball this season, and with what he has done in that role, so far, there is every reason to believe it will be his only season as the face of the Jayhawks.
McLemore is seen by an increasing number of analysts and writers as the best player in the 2013 NBA draft, if he chooses to take that path. As the 25 players for the Wooden Award watch list were announced on Thursday, McLemore was one of three freshmen remaining on that list.
Through 14 games, McLemore is averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 51 percent from the field, 46 percent on three-point attempts.
What the Kansas redshirt freshman is doing this season is impressive for a first-year college player, but it is amazing when you consider that he is basically coming off two years of official basketball activity.
In the two years before the 2012-13 college basketball season, McLemore played a total of just six games, all of which were high school games at Christian Life Center in Humble, Texas. McLemore transferred for his senior season from Wellston High School in St. Louis, where he averaged 28.3 points and 12.7 rebounds.
Because of the transfer McLemore was allowed to play in just six games for Christian Life Center. Last season he was ruled a partial qualifier based on academics and was allowed to compete only in practice with the Jayhawks.
Without playing a single minute of actual game time, McLemore was still a familiar face around the program as the Jayhawks made a run to the National Championship Game. McLemore was often seen around the team hotel in New Orleans last April, hanging out with the team and being greeted by fans.
Throughout the year there were stories of how impressive McLemore was against Kansas players like Tyshawn Taylor in practice, and how he was able to push and ready his Jayhawk teammates for those difficult games leading up to the national championship, where they lost to Kentucky.
McLemore seemed to develop a respect for those players whom he played against in practice and watched from the sidelines. That can be good in some ways, to respect and learn from older players, but it has also caused an issue for Kansas head coach Bill Self, who has had push McLemore to be more aggressive and stop deferring to seniors on the team.
McLemore is the best offensive player on the Kansas roster—maybe the best in college basketball—but at times he doesn't seem entirely comfortable with that. After Kansas' most recent game, against Iowa State in which McLemore scored a career high 33 points and missed only two shots (including free throws), he credited his coach and teammates for getting him into the flow of the game.
"He (Self) just wanted me to be more aggressive," McLemore said. "That's what I was doing, trying to be more aggressive and trying to get my teammates involved. They were definitely getting me involved. Elijah (Johnson) and Travis (Releford) were getting me involved in the game."
McLemore's success has made the 6'5" freshman from St. Louis a fan favorite, but Jayhawk followers seem to love Ben's personality off the court as well. On campus, whether Ben is at a Kansas volleyball game or hanging out with teammates between classes, he is almost always dancing.
People just seem to be captivated by the joy that McLemore has on his face when on the court and off, as they were with the video of his dancing that caught fire over the Internet.
The hesitation that McLemore shows in being the one player that Kansas can count on in the clutch may be just be his personality, but it makes sense considering some of the players he has shared the ball with.
Even in high school McLemore had a talented teammate to look toward. The backcourt for the St. Louis Eagles, McLemore's AAU team, was led by last year's No. 3 overall NBA draft pick, Bradley Beal. Even if that does seem unfair to all of the other AAU teams that had to play against the two future lottery picks, it does give insight into why McLemore's first reaction is to pass up a shot unless wide open.
The reason for McLemore's lack of aggressiveness may be caused by something that we can't see, but whatever the case, it seems like McLemore is learning with every game how to fit into his role.
“A lot of it’s on him being aggressive,” Self told The Kansas City Star. “He takes good shots. But the other night, he took some marginal shots that went in. He was more aggressive the other night. He just didn’t get as many opportunities.”
McLemore took just 12 shots in that game against Iowa State—amazing that he could score 33 points on so few attempts. But this shortage in offensive looks needs to change.
Senior point guard Elijah Johnson takes it upon himself to get McLemore those shots: “I just told him, ‘It’s my fault if you don’t get going’, ” Johnson said. “So take the ball. I kept giving it to him.”
McLemore still has time to learn to be more aggressive, but at Allen Fieldhouse against Iowa State he took over the game just in time, and it was the freshman that led Kansas and the four starting seniors to victory.