There's no doubting Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore has the tools to be a successful NBA player. Only a few games into his NBA career, the rookie is showing that he can translate those skills into success on the court.
McLemore, drafted with the No. 7 pick this past June, has had some up-and-down games over his first week in the NBA, but one thing that's remained consistent is his eye-popping talent and sizable role on the Sacramento Kings. He's flashed in his opportunities, and in turn will continue to get more chances.
That's obviously good for McLemore, as the best way for him to improve is through game experience. Perhaps it's even better for Sacramento, though, considering the team doesn't possess too many players with his upside. Developing his game will be an integral part in the Kings' future.
Confidence from Coach Malone
So many coaches are averse to playing rookies from the get-go. Apparently Kings coach Michael Malone isn't one of them. Either that, or he sees enough in McLemore to shirk his normal philosophy. Whatever the case, Malone's made sure the rookie's had plenty of playing time.
McLemore is averaging 20.3 minutes over his first three games. He's played as many as 30 minutes in one game, and as little as 13 in another. Suffice it to say, he's got considerable playing time every time the Kings have taken to the court.
While the results may have fluctuated from game to game, one thing that hasn't waned is Malone's confidence in McLemore.
After McLemore's first game, in which he scored only four points on 1-of-7 shooting, Malone was nothing but complimentary of the rookie.
"I thought Ben was solid," Malone said. "He did a good job. I just want him to go out there, continue to be aggressive, look to make plays. You look at his line…he was only 1-for-7 for four points, so it wasn’t his best game obviously. But Ben’s a guy that gets better almost every day, and he just didn’t make shots tonight.
"I thought he had some great looks that he usually makes, and I’m never going to discourage him from taking shots that he can make. I want to give him confidence. I think that’s the greatest gift I can give a player as a coach, is confidence. If you miss a shot and you’re open next time, I want you to shoot it without any hesitation, and he’ll be able to do that."
In turn, that belief from the coaching staff helps relieve some of the pressure on McLemore. He doesn't have to play concerned that one missed shot will land him on the bench. He can go out there and play loose.
"It means a lot," McLemore said. "Just having the ability to shoot the ball the way I can shoot it, and with the coach telling me I have the green light to shoot the ball, it’s just a blessing for me. I have great point guards in Isaiah [Thomas] and Greivis [Vasquez] that distribute to me to get me open and stuff like that. It’s a good privilege to have the opportunity."
In a lot of respects, Malone's confidence in McLemore is starting to pay off. In a recent game against the Warriors, albeit a Kings loss, the rookie scored 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting. It's the first time a rookie has led Sacramento in scoring since Isaiah Thomas did it in April 2012.
What made McLemore's performance even more noteworthy was his first two games, in which he went a combined 2-of-9 from the field. He obviously wasn't discouraged from shooting after the slow start, and it's started to pay off.
The Moment Isn't Too Big
The one thing that's so fascinating about elite athletes is their ability to stay focused in nerve-racking situations. In a lot of ways it's what separates them from your average person. Sure, the size, speed and athleticism don't hurt, but give your average person those skills and they'd still crumble under the pressure.
This is a guy who's a lottery pick, spent only one year in college and is set to make his NBA debut—something that he's been dreaming of for his whole life probably—and it doesn't even faze him.
In his mind, this wasn't his first taste of NBA action in the regular season. It was just another game.
"I was excited," McLemore said. "I was ready to get the game started. I’m very comfortable now. I’m not really nervous anymore. Throughout the summer league and playing with the seven preseason games all the nerves and all that stuff. It was just a normal game. I just went out there and played free. Just go out there and play my game. That’s what I did tonight. I wasn’t making my shots, but just go out there and contribute to the game."
As for playing in an arena full of crazed fans, which Sacramento surely was on opening night, that was just a normal experience for the rookie. After all, he went to one of college basketball's powerhouse programs.
"I went to Kansas," McLemore said. "I played in front of 16,300 every night. It’s a pretty great crowd. Just coming into the NBA, in front of our fans…before the game I was telling Coach Jent, ‘It seems like I’m at Kansas. I’m back home.’ I was just trying to have fun with my first game in the NBA."
Playing in All Situations
Perhaps what makes McLemore's first week of NBA action so encouraging is his ability to play in all situations. Not only is the rookie playing sizable minutes in every game, he's also playing in virtually any situation.
On opening night against Denver, the rookie played half the fourth quarter. It's not like the game was out of hand, either, as the Kings were only leading 81-78 when McLemore was replaced by Marcus Thornton.
A couple nights later, against the Los Angeles Clippers, it was the same deal. McLemore played the first five minutes of the fourth quarter before ceding to Marcus Thornton. At the time of the substitution, the game was tied at 90.
How did Ben McLemore's first week compare to your expectations?
In the team's most recent game at the Warriors, McLemore got his most extensive playing time yet. Unlike the previous two games, the contest against Golden State was a blowout. The fact that McLemore played the last quarter-and-a-half of action isn't necessarily noteworthy, given the scenario.
What is noteworthy, however, is how McLemore was playing compared to the rest of the team. His 19 points led the team in scoring. Sacramento's starting unit totaled 22 combined points. And the rookie's plus-15 in the plus/minus was tops on the team.
Bottom line: Coach Malone is going to play whoever gives the Kings the best chance to win. Experience isn't a factor of the equation. Since McLemore's consistently been one of the team's best players over the first three games, he's had his fair share of playing time.
Expect that to continue as the rookie acclimates to the NBA and becomes an even better player.
Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand.
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