Will Ben McLemore's Disappearing Act Cost Kansas Jayhawks When It Counts?
On Monday night, Kansas senior guard Elijah Johnson put on a one-man show at Hilton Coliseum down the stretch that (with a little help from the officials) led Kansas to an overtime win over Iowa State.
Johnson buried big shot after big shot, and the player who most believe should take those shots spent the stretch run standing in the corner, more spectator than star.
Ben McLemore is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft in June, and with good reason. Watching McLemore effortlessly rise up and stroke his repeatable picture-perfect jumper is one of the treats of this college basketball season. He moves just as effortlessly, and when he gets around the rim, McLemore floats.
He's so gifted that Bill Self has said McLemore is the most talented freshman he's ever coached. Digest that for a second. Self has coached eight NBA lottery picks, including New Jersey Nets point guard Deron Williams.
So why is it McLemore morphs into a role player in close games? Why was it Johnson and not McLemore saving the Jayhawks in Ames?
A One-Dimensional Scorer
The perception of a player who is expected to be the top pick is that he can score pretty much however he wants at the college level.
McLemore cannot, and it's more a fact than a flaw. Wanting him to be the player who gets the ball as everyone else gets the heck out of the way is understandable, but that's just not his game.
McLemore can score in bunches, as he's shown multiple times this season. He dropped 33 points against Iowa State in Lawrence. He helped end KU's three-game losing streak by putting 30 on K-State earlier this month.
When he has space and is in rhythm, his jumper is elite. That's why scouts salivate. But what Big 12 teams have figured out is that McLemore can be slowed—almost made invisible—if you don't give him space.
The counter to a defender who crowds is to make him pay by attacking off the dribble. McLemore doesn't have that ability. He struggles to put the ball on the floor. If he's catching the ball on a reversal and attacking the rim, he's a capable straight-line driver.
Here's an example of that.
Where McLemore struggles is when he tries to make too many moves. Rarely will you see him shake his man off the dribble. The clip below is an example of what happens when he tries to do too much off the bounce.
When McLemore has gone off this year, he has been aided by his teammates. He's a guy who needs some help.
Out of the 52 threes McLemore has made this season, 90 percent of those have been assisted, according to Hoop-Math.com. Point guard Naadir Tharpe assisted McLemore on five of his six threes in the win against K-State at Allen Fieldhouse, and he did so by getting McLemore (to borrow a phrase from Dan Dakich) room-and-rhythm jumpers.
Here are two of the five.
The one thing you don't want to do is go under a screen on McLemore.
The obvious strategy to slow McLemore is to take these room-and-rhythm jumpers away. On Monday, the Cyclones limited McLemore to just six shot attempts (he made two) by shadowing him with a defender all over the court.
Look at where the ball (green arrow) is in this screen shot and how Chris Babb is defending McLemore (circled). Babb is not playing help defense like the rest of his teammates, instead face-guarding McLemore.
The Cyclones hugged McLemore on the perimeter and did not help off him under any circumstances. Bill Self tried to get McLemore involved by running some set plays for him, but the teams that have done a good job of slowing McLemore have been able to bump him and stick with him when he comes off screens.
You can almost tell if McLemore's shot is going to go in or not by watching his feet. When he's able to step into a shot like the threes against K-State, he's close to automatic. When he's rushed and closely guarded, like in this clip, he usually misses.
It makes sense that priority No. 1 for a defense down the stretch of a game is to take away KU's leading scorer, and McLemore has been willing to be taken away. At Iowa State, he did not take a shot in overtime, and his final attempt in regulation came with seven minutes and 13 seconds left. At Oklahoma State, he did not take a shot in two overtimes.
McLemore has disappeared for such long stretches in these moments for three reasons: 1) Defenses have stayed glued to him; 2) he has not demanded the ball; and 3) it doesn't make any sense for Self to isolate McLemore at the top and ask him to make a play.
The one clutch shot that McLemore has made was his banked three against Iowa State, and that was set up by his teammates. KU ran its signature chop play (the same one that set up Mario Chalmers' three against Memphis in 2008). McLemore did not play the Chalmers role; instead, he was able to get free off a great flare screen set by Travis Releford.
Why Does McLemore's Jumper Not Travel?
It's understandable that McLemore can be taken away for short stretches. The one thing that is puzzling about McLemore is why his numbers at home in the Big 12 dwarf his numbers on the road.
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One explanation is that teams just execute their defensive game plans better at home than on the road. It also could have a lot to do with comfort and familiarity for McLemore. He is a freshman and is playing in new venues for the first time.
The numbers have been consistent (good and bad). McLemore has made at least two threes in every game at home, and he has made more than one three on the road only once (two at Texas).
If there's a silver lining for the Jayhawks, it's that he has shot well on neutral courts. McLemore made five of seven shots against Michigan State in a November loss in Atlanta (home of this year's Final Four), and he's made six of 13 threes in three games at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, where the Jayhawks could spend the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.
At some point, one of those games is going to be close in the final seconds, and Self is going to have to decide whether to run a play for McLemore or go to another player like Johnson.
Johnson proved on Monday that he has the clutch gene. He may not be as great a shooter as McLemore or as good a pro, but he is willing and able to be that guy.
And McLemore is willing and able to watch from the corner.
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