Ben Aims for Rising Stars
Ben McLemore’s highlight-reel athleticism and creativity were on full display in the 2014 NBA All-Star Saturday Night Slam Dunk Contest, as the high-flying guard set off a sparkling sea of flashbulbs by soaring over a throne occupied by Kings Minority Owner Shaquille O’Neal and throwing down an electrifying, one-handed flush.
“I had a great time – I had a chance to represent the Sacramento Kings and my teammates, and it was a great opportunity for me to get exposure and experience something different,” says McLemore. “If they invite me again, of course I would do it.”
One night prior, however, as he disappointedly watched fellow rookie standouts partaking in the Rising Stars Challenge, No. 23 – fueled and further motivated by his exclusion from the Friday-evening exhibition contest – set his sights on earning a spot in this year’s midseason showcase.
“I still had the opportunity to experience All-Star Weekend, being in the Dunk Contest, but I was a little disappointed (by) not making the rookie-sophomore game,” he admits. “But at the same time, I wasn’t going to (allow it) to affect my game. Not being invited, after that, (I went) out there competing, going even harder each and every day.”
In 29 games following last season’s All-Star break, McLemore –who earned Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors in November – upped his scoring average from 7.6 to 10.9 points per outing, pouring in a career-high 31 points to go along with five assists and five rebounds in Sacramento’s regular-season finale on April 16, 2014. The Kings guard finished his first-year campaign ranked third in three-pointers made (95), fifth in scoring (8.8 points) and sixth in free-throw accuracy (80.4 percent) among qualified freshmen, earning four votes for the All-Rookie First Team.
“My confidence started building up, and my teammates and coaches believed in me,” he explains. “(It helped) having the mindset of just going out there and playing my game, doing whatever it takes to get better and help the team.”
The Sacramento draftee picked up right where he left off in 2014-15, no longer only flashing his immense potential, but providing nightly consistency by notching 11.7 points per game, raising his overall field goal percentage from 37.6 to 45.2 percent and knocking down a team-leading 70 triples at a 35.4-percent clip.
After scoring 20 or more points in three of his first 82 games, McLemore has already surpassed the threshold five times this season – notching a season-high 23 points while matched up against L.A. Lakers All-Star Kobe Bryant on Dec. 21, 2014 – and has tied his career-high with four three-pointers on four occasions.
With the 2015 Rising Stars Challenge debuting a new format – pitting first- and second-year U.S.-born players against the NBA’s top international freshmen and sophomores – the St. Louis, Mo. native ranks second in free-throw percentage (82.9 – min. 50 attempts), sixth in true-shooting percentage (56.9 percent), seventh in scoring and is tied for eighth in win shares (1.4) among eligible USA candidates (min. 10 games played), according to basketball-reference.com.
“My confidence is on a different level this year,” he continues. “I’ve been trying to keep it that way – believe in myself and my shot, play my game, have fun, play free and let the game come to me.”
The Kansas product credits extensive offseason workouts at his alma mater, as well as training with Kings coaches and his new starting backcourt mate for his improved court awareness, ball-handling and scoring efficiency.
“I had a chance to go back to school at Kansas and work with some guys there and the coaching staff, and I worked out back in Sacramento with the coaches,” he says. “I also had a chance to work out with Darren Collison over the summer, so we just got a feel for each other and got ready to prepare for the season.”
McLemore’s dedication has paid immense dividends, as the Kings guard has increased his field goal percentage on two-pointers from 41.9 to a 54.5 percent – sixth at his position (min. 100 attempts), via basketball-reference.com.
No. 23 has also been decisive and aggressive around the rim, converting on 64.8 percent of his shots within five feet of the hoop and increasing his field goal percentage on drives to the basket from a League-low 24.4 percent (min. 50 drives) to 43.9 percent this season – ahead of Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague and Chicago Bulls guard-forward Jimmy Butler – per NBA.com/Stats.
“I’ve been working on my IQ of the game, understanding the game and learning more about it,” he says. ”I’m just attacking. When my shot’s not falling, I (know I) have to take a couple of dribbles and get to the basket. I’ve always been a spot-up shooter, and I want to work around that and (develop) my all-around game.”
The 21-year-old has simultaneously continued to make strides on the defensive end – an area of personal pride and scrupulous focus – holding opposing players to 42.8 percent from the field and 31.5 percent from behind the arc – 4.9 percent below their cumulative season averages, according to NBA.com/Stats. With McLemore on the court, the Kings have outscored opponents by 2.4 points per 100 possessions, compared to being outscored by 13.8 per 100 possessions when No. 23 has been on the bench – the third-highest net difference on the team.
“My mindset is coming in and being a defensive stopper,” he says. “I know every night, it’s going to be a challenge for me. I just have to have the mindset to give it my all and give it my best shot each and every night. So far, I’ve been competing and having success.”
The second-year wing hopes the League’s assistant coaches – who’ll select the pool of eligible participants for the Rising Stars Challenge – recognize and validate his vastly improved all-around play.
“It would mean a lot to me, especially (since) last year, I wasn’t there,” he says. “I’ve been working really hard, trying to have the chance to participate in the rookie-sophomore game.”
In a customarily high-scoring affair renowned for show-stopping slams, spectacular passes and outside jumpshots, McLemore believes his diverse skill set would allow him to fill up the box score and become a staple on video-board replays.
“I think whatever happens, I’m going to go out there and just have fun – play my game, shoot the ball, get some alley-oops and dunks,” he says. “At the same time, I’d be going out there and competing against the best of the best.”
As one of the game’s most exhilarating above-the-rim finishers – who’s tied with Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star Russell Westbrook for fourth among guards in dunks (26), via basketball-reference.com – McLemore promises he wouldn’t disappoint fans with a spectacular display inside Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
“(I’d) put on a great show for the fans and give the fans what they want to see,” he says. “I’m very excited, so hopefully I get the opportunity to participate.
“If not, I just want to keep working on my game and getting better. I want to improve each and every year.”