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Ben McLemore Showing Signs of Major Progress After Rough Rookie Season

Sim Risso@@SimRissoFeatured ColumnistDecember 15, 2014

Dec 8, 2014; Sacramento, CA, USA; Sacramento Kings guard Ben McLemore (23) drives in against Utah Jazz guard Alec Burks (10) during the first quarter at Sleep Train Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After turning in a lackluster rookie year, Sacramento Kings shooting guard Ben McLemore is coming alive in his sophomore season. 

Of course, everyone who saw McLemore play last season knew he was incredibly gifted. His athleticism was apparent when watching his highlight-reel dunks, and while the results were inconsistent, he displayed good mechanics on his jump shot. The question after one campaign was whether he could put it all together and get the most out of his abilities. 

ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required) had the Kansas product tabbed as the No. 5 prospect in the 2013 draft class. Of McLemore, Ford wrote:

McLemore is all about upside. Blessed with elite athletic abilities and a breathtaking jump shot, McLemore might have the highest ceiling of any player in the draft. If he can gain confidence and maturity, play hard on every possession and improve his handle and feel, he could be an All-Star someday.

ESPN's other draft guru, Jay Bilas (subscription required), took it a step further. He ranked McLemore as the top prospect in the class, projecting him as the player in the draft who was "most likely to mature into an All-Star," citing only his assertiveness in holding him back. 

Truth be told, that assertiveness and lack of confidence were largely what plagued McLemore during his rookie year. He often looked timid with the ball and wouldn't always take open shots. And on the occasions when he did fire away, the shooting guard's smooth jumper wasn't falling.

He made only 37.6 percent of his field-goal attempts and 32 percent of his three-pointers en route to averaging 8.8 points in 26.7 minutes. His efficiency was so lacking that McLemore was negative in offensive win shares (minus-0.1) and only had a player efficiency rating of 7.7, where the league average is 15.

The progression McLemore's made this year is obvious. He's improved his field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, scoring and offensive rating.

Along with Anthony Bennett, Ben Gordon and Allen Crabbe, McLemore is one of four players who shot under 38 percent last year and over 46 percent this year on at least two field-goal attempts a game. Other than Terrence Jones, McLemore is the only player to improve from under 32 percent from three to over 41 percent on at least one attempt per game. Jones, though, has only attempted seven attempts in four games.

Ben McLemore's progression
FG%3P%ORtgPPG
2013-14.376.320978.8
2014-15.468.41210811.7
Basketball-Reference.com

And importantly, the shooting guard can pinpoint why he's better. 

"Confidence," said McLemore. "I’ve just continued to believe in my shot and believe in my game. My teammates are doing a good job with that. My coaches have been running early plays for me and getting me going early."

It makes sense too. He has the look of a more confident player. While he's actually taking fewer shots per 36 minutes (10.1 this year, 11.2 as a rookie), the attempts are falling with more frequency. McLemore has knocked down 46.8 percent of his field goals along with 41.2 percent of his three-pointers this season.

He's still only averaging 11.7 points. A lot of that can be attributed to McLemore not forcing things and the Kings not putting too much on his plate, as only 15.7 percent of the plays have been run for him throughout the season.

But he's seeing an uptick in those areas since DeMarcus Cousins has been out with viral meningitis. While the big man's been sidelined 10 games since Nov. 26, McLemore has increased his scoring to 13.7 points, and his usage percentage has escalated to 17.9 percent. He's also attacking the rack with more regularity, raising his free-throw attempts from 1.1 per game in November to 2.9 in December.

SACRAMENTO, CA - NOVEMBER 30: Ben McLemore #23 of the Sacramento Kings shoots a layup against Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies on November 30, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

"Like I said, it’s just all confidence," said McLemore of his play without Cousins in the lineup. "It’s just all confidence and believing in myself. Like I said, my teammates do a great job of that. When DeMarcus was here, he did a good job of finding me. Rudy (Gay) and Darren (Collison) and those guys are doing the same thing."

That's only one side of the ball, of course. McLemore has also been working on his defense. It's something he takes pride in, and it's an area he's been focusing on throughout the season.

That's something that bleeds through when watching him. He's less tentative when guarding his man and doesn't lose sight of him when playing off the ball, whereas sometimes last season McLemore had the tendency to get beat with backdoor cuts to the hoop or by not rotating quick enough to prevent open three-pointers.

"That was one of my mindsets coming into this season was being a lockdown defender and stopping different types of guards and making it tough for them," said McLemore.

While he may not be a lockdown defender yet, he's gone from weak to above average on that end. According to 82games.com, McLemore allowed opposing shooting guards to post a PER of 16.1 as a rookie. As a sophomore, he's seen that number decrease to 14.3.

But he's not yet satisfied. McLemore is known for his work ethic. General manager Pete D'Alessandro talked about McLemore's diligence at the end of last season, providing reason for optimism after a rough rookie year.

"I’ve said this from the beginning of the year, the guy works like no other young guy works," said D'Alessandro, per Bryan Rose of Fansided.com. "He and Ray [McCallum] together, I really give them a lot of credit for their work ethic. If you have talent, athleticism, and that work ethic – which he does – I think it’s a recipe for success."

Following a Nov. 13 game against the Detroit Pistons in which McLemore hit four of his eight three-point attempts, point guard Darren Collison attributed McLemore's improvement to the time he puts in.

"He’s coming along well," said Collison. "He puts in the work. He puts in the work every day. I think he’s going to be a good player for this team for a very long time."

As long as he continues to put in the work, McLemore's got a chance to live up to the potential that made him the best player in the 2013 draft class.

Unless noted otherwise, all quotes obtained firsthand and all stats via Basketball-Reference.com.

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