As we continue to look through the Cleveland Cavaliers’ options with the #1 selection in the NBA Draft later this month, it’s time to look at Kansas guard Ben McLemore.
McLemore’s flying under the radar a bit right now with all the talk focusing primarily on Nerlens Noel, Otto Porter, or a trade for the Cavaliers at No. 1. However, there is certainly a case to be made for McLemore going No. 1. He’s a phenomenal shooter and scorer, but his position (shooting guard) and his poor scoring performances in four out of his last five games have cooled some of the hype around the redshirt freshman.
Let’s take a look at what those around the league are saying.
“Ultra smooth shooting guard with a lethal combination of athleticism and scoring ability … Absolutely an elite level athlete with prototypical size and athleticism for the 2-guard position … Shot has tremendous form, great elevation with the range to knock down the 3 ball consistently … Shows a good feel for the game with the ability to create shots off the dribble … Unselfish, team player who shows strong ability to pass the ball for an off guard … Great length. At 6’5, he appears to have a 6’9 or greater wingspan … Highly coachable kid.”
“McLemore’s college career didn’t get off to the best start, as he was ruled academically ineligible for his freshman season. His high school was shut down by the state of Missouri and he was dismissed from Oak Hill for violating team rules, forcing him again to transfer, this time to Christian Life Center. Once on campus, McLemore was arrested for failing to show up to a court case for possession of alcohol as a minor.
A bit undersized for a shooting guard at 6-4 ½ in shoes (measured at the 2010 LeBron James Skills Academy), McLemore has a solid but not incredible 6-7 wingspan to go along with a chiseled frame and outstanding athletic ability. Boasting some of the best leaping ability of any player in college basketball, McLemore is a highlight reel play waiting to happen and has very good quickness as well.”
“After Noel suffered a season ending ACL injury, McLemore became the favorite to be the top pick. But with inconsistent play, culminated by a dreadful tourney performance in which he scored 2 points on 0-9 shooting vs. UNC, McLemore left the door open for Noel to go first even with the ACL injury. McLemore bounced back with a big final game against Michigan, showing off his feathery touch and athletic gifts. He is not a finished product and scouts will nitpick his level of assertiveness and lack of a fiery personality leading up to the draft. But at the end of the day, he’s the guy in this draft with the greatest shot at becoming a superstar. While the feat has not been accomplished (a SG going 1) in 40 years, McLemore is in position to do it. His outside shot is comparable to a perfect golf swing, it’s a thing of beauty. Combine that with freakish athleticism and you have a high level prospect.”
“An elite athlete who flies down the floor, McLemore is a beast in the open court, an excellent shooter when set and has the ability to defend multiple positions. He’s less effective when creating his own shot or shooting off the dribble, and he can become passive on the offensive end. Still, he has the potential to be the most exciting wing in the draft.”
15.9 PTS, 5.2 RBS, 2.0 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.7 BLK, 2.1 TO, 49.5% FG, 42% 3PT, 87% FT, 73 3PTM in 37 games
To lead it off, I figured I’d poll a guy who watched McLemore more than anyone this season, our resident Jayhawk alum TD. Below is TD’s take:
“I had the pleasure of watching Ben McLemore’s one season on the court at the University of Kansas. He sat out the 2011-12 season as a partial qualifier, only able to practice during the second semester. While the Jayhawks were making a run to their eighth consecutive Big 12 championship and their first Final Four since 2008, head coach Bill Self was telling anyone who would listen: his best player in practice every day was not lottery pick Thomas Robinson or third-team All American PG Tyshawn Taylor (two NBA players). It was McLemore, a 6’5 two-guard who could jump out of the gym and was as fluid on the perimeter as anyone he has coached in Lawrence.
KU was supposed to take a step back in 2013 in part because they lost their two top scores and the keys to their offense, T-Rob and Taylor. Nobody knew who would pick up the scoring slack as KU’s key returnees were all roll players and the informing Freshman class did not include any high impact wings. Self knew, and from day one he unleashed McLemore as one of his starting guards.
In his second college game, McLemore faced the always tough half court defensive attack of the Michigan State Spartans in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. I was in attendance and it was the first I had seen McLemore live. His strengths and his weaknesses both played out in this game. He would score 13 points on 5-7 shooting in 35 minutes. He wowed me with his athleticism and his quick release jumper, but as the game got tight down the stretch, instead of trying to take over, he deferred to his backcourt mates, seniors Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford. With one possession left and a chance to tie, McLemore didn’t make an attempt to tie the game, letting Releford take the final shot. Kansas lost 67-64. At the time, I chalked it up to a Freshman learning on the job and that as the season went on, he would become more assertive.
As it turns out, I spent most of the season wondering why McLemore would be the best talent on the floor, yet completely disappear from time to time.
His coming out party came in Columbus against Ohio State. During KU’s 74-66 win on December 22nd, Ben scored 22 points on an array of dunks, mid-range jumpers, and three-point shots. What took me aback were a couple of alley-oops out of timeouts that completely caught the Buckeye napping. McLemore just exploded to the rim.
It was after that game that Self told his assistants to enjoy him while they could, because this was a guy that would be leaving for the NBA after the season. However, that performance in Columbus would be his peak in hostile environments.
For most of the Big 12 season, B Mac would be a complete beast, All-American type talent at home, and often look like a scared, not ready for prime time talent on the road. There were several prime examples:
On January 9th against Iowa State, McLemore scored a career high 33 points on a whopping 10-12 shooting. He hit all six of his threes including a back shot with one second left to force overtime. He almost willed KU to this win on his own. In the return match in front of a raucous Ames crowd, McLemore played 38 minutes and only took six shots. Six. He was as close to invisible as I could ever remember a star player being. And i assure you, he did so not because of great Iowa State defense.
In the next game, a home tilt with West Virginia, Ben played 30 minutes and scored 36 points on 12-15 shooting.
Or how about the February 11th battle for first place in the Big 12 against Kansas State where the kid from St. Louis went bananas for 30 on just 12 shots. Ben then followed that up with a four-game stretch where he averaged just eight points and nine shots. That includes a double OT win at Oklahoma State where he played 49 minutes and went 3-12 and scored seven points.
For all of the smooth jumpers, unbelievable dunks, and 30 point games I watched McLemore put down, he would also go missing at times and had to be prodded by Self to be more aggressive. It was the same way with Brandon Rush during his three seasons in Lawrence.
I come back to his final two college games, which left me hollow.
In the round of 32 game in the NCAA Tournament against North Carolina, McLemore was so far from plugged in that Self benched him for most of the second half, while KU went on a huge run to turn a double digit half time deficit into a 12 point win. He sat for most of the final 13 minutes of the game, went 0-9 from the floor and scored a career low two points.
Then in the Sweet 16 OT loss to Michigan, he played well for the first 30 minutes of the game, scoring 20 points, but then went into the witness protection program, taking just one shot in the final 10 minutes of regulation and overtime, failing to score.
A lot of his passive nature comes from his biggest weakness – his ball handling which needs to improve. It also comes from the fact that he has never had to be “the man,” not even in high school. His AAU team starred Bradley Beal. The KU experience was new to him.”
The game I have to dissect for McLemore is a late January home win against Oklahoma. McLemore scored 18 points in the game on 5-of-10 shooting to go with 7 rebounds as the Jayhawks pulled away late to win by 13.
Let’s begin with McLemore’s obvious strength, three-point shooting. He connected on 3-of-5 attempts in this game. For the season, he made two per game and dialed up a 42% percentage from long range. Here, we see McLemore (#23 in white) on the right wing. For some reason, the Sooner defender is giving him all kinds of space on the wing while in helpside defense. This is probably why Oklahoma doesn’t normally do the basketball thing well (sorry, Blake Griffin and Wayman Tisdale).
As the ball gets reversed, you see just how quick McLemore’s release is. He’s a good step behind the line, but there’s no hesitation as he gets ready to load up a shot attempt.
The OU defender goes to close out, but it’s too late as the high and quick release of McLemore gets the job done as he fires and hits the long three from the right wing.
Here, we take a look at three pointer number two from a different camera angle (thanks, ESPN). McLemore starts on the left wing with Jeff Withey, the first-round draft prospect. McLemore fakes the reversal and looks to attack.
As he dribbles toward the left corner, both defenders close in as Withey is left alone momentarily on the perimeter.
Ben continues to the corner and posts up his man for a split second in an effort to create some separation.
Withey sets a screen, as McLemore takes a step back dribble and gets the space he needs to take a three-point jumper.
The best thing about McLemore’s shooting stroke is just how pure it is. Not much movement side-to-side or falling forward/backward. Straight up, straight down, quick release, no pronounced leg-kick. He’s comfortable from all around the arc, including strides behind.
On his last made three, we see McLemore with tons of space again. As you watch the Kansas guard navigate around the floor, he is always either working to get open or standing somewhere ready to shoot at a second’s notice.
The cross-court pass and a little interference run by Withey leaves McLemore with a clear sight of the hoop.
Notice again that he’s way behind the line. There is absolutely ZERO question about his range translating to the NBA line whatsoever.
With advanced shooting metrics off the charts, McLemore’s outside shooting is something to behold. The Jayhawk two-guard posted a 58.6% effective field goal percentage (72nd in the nation) and a 63.3% true shooting percentage (37th in the nation). Obviously, you can’t expect to translate the exact numbers to the next level, but his college marks would place him T-4th in the entire league in eFG% and 8th in TS%.
Here, we see McLemore catch the ball and score inside the arc on a quick offensive opportunity. He starts on the left wing (30 on the shot clock as the ball has been pushed up the court quickly). McLemore is in triple threat position and looks inside to the post. From here, he can definitely shoot it or pass it.
Instead, he starts a drive to the middle of the floor, which seems to catch the defender a little off guard. McLemore doesn’t usually take more than one or two dribbles because he’s an accomplished jump-shooter from mid-range as well. The defender has to keep that in mind.
This time, however, he does attack as he uses a crafty spin move to create space.
McLemore rises up off the spin move and finishes high off the glass.
McLemore’s other field goal in this game was an offensive putback made possible by running the floor in transition. McLemore is a pretty good rebounder for his size, grabbing 7 in this particular game. He also gets to the foul line at a pretty decent clip (3.8 FTA/game), hitting a stellar 87% of his freebies.
Now, let’s take a look at some of the highlights on the defensive end of the floor. McLemore starts out on the left elbow, defending the man in the left corner.
As we see his man cut through off the screen, watch how much ground McLemore covers in a short amount of time. McLemore gets screened by Oklahoma’s Andrew Fitzgerald (#4). So well, in fact, that he’s almost completely blocked from view in this screen grab.
Recovering and going under, McLemore gets in position to sprint out to close out on the shooter in the corner. Unlike ball screens where a consistent strategy (choosing to go either over or under the ball screen) is preferred, off-ball screens can often require a much more improvised reaction. Whatever is the shortest path to your man is the way to go, and where the pick is set plays a major role in that.
Here, McLemore does a fantastic job of closing out to disrupt the shooter while remaining under control to avoid a foul call. Buddy Hield misses the three from the right corner with the solid contest from Ben.
Now, we see McLemore handle an on-ball screen and recover. McLemore’s man gets ready to receive a handoff on the right wing.
Oklahoma runs the big man body shield play where the post flips it behind him as uses his body to shield the defender to create separation.
McLemore goes under the screen and still has time to close out on the wing, again under control.
Finally, we see another solid, if not flashy, defensive sequence for Mac. He starts defending in the low post on the left side. Despite the fact that he’s covering a guard that is likely to pop out on the perimeter, McLemore’s got a hand on him and is down in a defensive stance.
As the ball is taken out higher with the Sooners looking to run a play, McLemore fronts his man to prevent an easy pass into the high post. This could be overlooked or taken for granted, but so much of defense is the knowledge and willingness to do the little things and put forth the extra effort.
The ball gets reversed to the right side, where the shot goes up. McLemore immediately looks for his man to box him out. This is something the Cavaliers failed at across the board last year in the backcourt.
McLemore fends off his man and gathers the defensive rebound. Bill Self’s Jayhawk team led the entire nation in 2-point percentage defense and effective field goal percentage defense, and McLemore played huge minutes in that system that demands accountability and effort.
So, should the Cavaliers hold onto the top pick, do they pass on both Nerlens Noel and Otto Porter to take Ben McLemore? I’ll begin with TD’s final thoughts…
“There is no doubt in my mind that McLemore is a superior talent with as of high of a ceiling as any player in this draft. But make no mistake, he is not an alpha-dog. McLemore’s best chance to succeed is as a sidekick to a star. From the Cavs standpoint, if you put him next to a Kyrie Irving type talent, I think he would excel. Throw in Dion Waiters and you could have a 2013 Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, Vinnie Johnson-esque rotation in the backcourt. McLemore has deep three-point range and is an explosive leaper. Defensively, he performed at a high level, as most top athletes do in Self’s system and would buy into Mike Brown’s defensive philosophy. He’s a great kid who came up hard. His story is well documented.
If he ended up in Cleveland, I for one would love it and would really be curious to see how McLemore would grow as a number two scoring option next to Irving. Do I think it will happen? Probably not, but you can never have enough backcourt scoring.”
I’ll add to TD’s take by saying the “we have a starting shooting guard that we drafted last year” logic is not thinking clearly. If the Cavaliers determine that McLemore is a talent that can’t be passed on, if they feel he will ultimately be the biggest star out of this draft, then they not only should take him, they MUST take him. There could be a potential minutes crunch, but you start with giving Kyrie Irving his 36 minutes at point guard. From there, you have 60 minutes to divide up for the backcourt. In theory, you could split the minutes down the middle for Waiters and McLemore, given that Waiters has experience backing up the point and playing extended minutes with the ball in his hands. You could also steal at least 6 minutes a game playing small ball to increase their minutes a bit.
Ultimately, however, even though I think McLemore would be a nice spot-up complement next to Kyrie Irving for years to come, I think the Cavaliers will end up taking a more all-around impact player at the defensive end of the floor in Noel or one with unique traits at both ends of the floor in Porter. McLemore’s lack of take-charge attitude in high importance games and the lack of ability to create consistently for himself makes me think that McLemore will have a very, long productive NBA career, but not a star-studded one.
Until next time, the film room is closed!
(Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)