None of which is to say McLemore will or won't pan out as a player. It's too early to make any unequivocal declarations on that subject. But this much is clear: The Kings have hitched their wagons to the rookie. The team has too much invested to turn back now.
Sacramento upped the ante even more recently when it sent out Marcus Thornton to the Brooklyn Nets. The swap paved the way for McLemore to take over the starting 2-guard duties for the rest of the season. The increased playing time can only be beneficial toward the rookie's development. But it will also force him into a situation where he must sink or swim.
With so much riding on McLemore's development for the Kings, that could be a scary proposition.
A New Regime with a New Hope
For the Kings, McLemore is so much more than a promising rookie. Of course, he's that too. But the rookie is also the first draft pick under new ownership and the revamped front office. In that sense, failure is not an option—or at least admitting failure isn't.
To make matters worse (or better?), the team made declarations that McLemore was the highest-rated player on its draft board. Here's what Kings general manager Pete D'Alessandro had to say about McLemore in his post-draft press conference, according to Jonathan Santiago of Cowbell Kingdom.
In fact, I personally had him ranked, in the time with my previous job (with Denver), as the No. 1 guy in this draft. With the draft process, you kind of start somewhere, then you go somwhere else then you back up. Throughout this year, I never came off that feeling to the point where Vivek and I were sitting on the court a couple of days ago having a discussion. I don’t know if I was just wishing, but I really felt that this was really going to be our guy.
That the Kings got their guy is a good thing. But now there's increased pressure for McLemore to pan out. He's not just another draft pick—he's the first player selected in the new era of Kings basketball. The rookie wasn't just the seventh-overall pick—he was the top player on Sacramento's draft board.
With all of that comes increased pressure for McLemore to pan out. It certainly adds to the scrutiny the front office will face if he doesn't succeed. Yet it also increases the expectations surrounding the 21-year-old.
Like virtually any rookie, McLemore has had his share of ups and downs during his initial NBA season. That simple fact isn't surprising; it'd be more shocking if it weren't the case.
McLemore started the season on a pretty strong note. The rookie garnered the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award for games played in November. He did so on averages of 9.1 points, 2.9 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 22.8 minutes per game. The youngster's play was so inspiring that he supplanted Marcus Thornton in the starting lineup only nine games into the season.
Yet McLemore began to struggle a bit in the following months. After being elevated into the starting lineup on Nov. 13 and staying there for a while, Thornton eventually once again overtook him as the starter on Jan. 7.
The rookie has also seen a drop-off in his individual statistics, which makes sense considering he lost his starting job. Since Dec. 9, he's averaged 6.3 points, 2.6 rebounds and 0.9 assists in 22.8 minutes of action. McLemore's also only shot 35.6 percent from the field and 32.3 percent from downtown during that span.
To add increased perspective, McLemore scored in double figures in nine of his first 18 games (up until Dec. 9). In the 36 games since, he's topped double digits only seven times. Suffice it to say, he's struggled a bit.
Again, in and of itself, none of this is overly concerning. In fact, the only reason it's even somewhat noteworthy is because of all the fuss made over McLemore when the Kings drafted him. Without the hoopla, nobody would think twice of the struggles. Absent the claim that he was the top pick on the draft board, this would be seen as nothing more than a little blip on the radar.
Maybe that's all it is. Rather, there's a decent chance that's all it is. But it can be hard not to expect more when you're looking for the best player in the draft.
Actions Speak Louder Than Words
What we've heard from the Kings front office on McLemore leads us to believe it has faith in the rookie. Yet if there were any doubt, its actions over the past week have validated that opinion.
Source said Kings and C's discussed a deal involving Isaiah Thomas, Ben McLemore and a pick for Rajon Rondo, but Rondo wasn't interested in re-signing with Sacramento and the Kings strongly value McLemore.
As Spears noted, the Kings "strongly value McLemore." Yet to make that absolutely clear, D'Alessandro made a point of seeking out the media to inform them the Kings wouldn't be trading the rookie.
And as Marc Stein of ESPN pointed out, the Kings were way more open to the idea of dealing point guard Isaiah Thomas prior to the deadline than they were McLemore.
In some respects this makes sense, especially when considering Thomas is slated for restricted free agency following the season, and the Kings are short on cap space to keep him. Of course they could match an offer for the point guard, but that might take them over the luxury-tax threshold.
Ultimately, Thomas wasn't dealt, so it's somewhat of a moot point. What is pertinent, however, is the forcefulness with which Sacramento stomped out any rumors of its interest in trading McLemore.
The team then went on to add McLemore to its list of "untouchables," along with Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins.
If the comments following the draft weren't enough of an indication of what the Kings felt about McLemore, their actions leading up to the trade deadline should be. They made it very clear they're not willing to trade the rookie. Beyond that, head coach Mike Malone made it clear the team's move to trade Thornton to the Nets was partially inspired by opening playing time for McLemore.
“My main thing moving forward is Ben McLemore,” Malone said, per Jason Jones of The Sacramento Bee. “And that’s no disrespect to anybody, but we drafted Ben seventh, and it’s been an up-and-down season for him at times. But with these last 29 games, there’s no pressure on this team."
Backed Into a Corner
For better or worse, the Kings have hitched their fortunes to McLemore's progress. Ultimately, though, they didn't really have a choice, not after they've come this far.
By saying McLemore was the best player in the draft, you can't turn around and trade him. You certainly can't have the rookie in a situation where he's not getting every opportunity to improve, which is what the Thornton trade provides.
Will the rookie validate their hopes?
That's the million-dollar question. McLemore certainly has the physical tools to do so. Anybody who's watched him play even for a few minutes can see the talent and the incredibly smooth shooting stroke.
Of course, at some point he's got to translate those tools into results on the court. That time isn't now, or even this season, since there's really no postseason to play for.
But when that time does come, McLemore has got to be ready, and he's got to succeed. This team and front office have way too much invested for him not to.
Unless noted otherwise, all stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.
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