(Orginally posted at Upside & Motor)
The 2013 draft was a weird one. Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore were considered the top two prospects by both Chad Ford and Jonathan Givony pretty much throughout the entire process but unexpectedly dropped on draft night and ended up selected sixth and seventh, respectively. While Noel’s fall was somewhat understandable (he subsequently missed the entire 2013-2014 season due to a knee injury), McLemore’s was particularly confusing.
Despite having several other wings on his roster (Jimmer Fredette, Marcus Thornton, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, John Salmons and Travis Outlaw), Kings’ general manager Pete D’Alessandro identified none of them were a potential long term solution (sure enough none of them were still on the roster by the start of this season) and drafted McLemore. Head coach Michael Malone flirted with the idea of playing Thornton over him early in that season but eventually got in line with the program and invested 2,187 minutes in McLemore’s development.
McLemore wasn’t a very good rookie, averaging a lousy 1.06 points per shot on 679 attempts. Projected as a shooter at the pro level, he hit just 32 percent of his 297 three-point attempts in his first season. Even so, the Kings’ selection of another true wing, Nik Stauskas, with the eighth pick in the 2014 draft came as a surprise. The consensus was Sacramento wasn’t so set in talent that they could afford to waste such a high value resource by adding someone who essentially duplicates the skill-set of the previous year’s pick, since it is tough to envision them playing together. It was difficult not to speculate the move was fueled by lack of confidence in McLemore’s development.
Yet, this is not how things have played out. Sacramento’s 8-5 start is not among the league’s best but, considering this franchise hasn’t won more than 28 games in six years, few teams have had a more encouraging first month. McLemore has been a part of it, while Stauskas has barely been a marginal rotation player.
The Kings have run an efficient offense, one that relies heavily on DeMarcus Cousins’, Rudy Gay’s and Carl Landry’s post up skills. As a result, they lead the league in free throws and rank in the top 10 in scoring within five feet. Playing off those interior threats has led to McLemore getting open more often and subsequently improving his shooting numbers. 41.2% of his shots were taken with a defender within four feet of him last season, while that number has dropped to 30.4% through the first month of this one. In fact, McLemore has been wide open (with a defender at least six feet away from him) on 41% of his shots.
Now a part of a healthier offensive ecosystem, McLemore has hit 39.2 percent of his 50 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts and 41.4 percent of his 58 overall three-pointers. He has a quick trigger, and gets good elevation and a high arc on his shot. His performance has been essential because the Kings aren’t getting much shooting from the rest of the team, with the other 12 players combining to hit only 27.2 percent on 136 three-point attempts. Sacramento is averaging 109.1 points per 100 possessions with McLemore in the lineup and 97.8 when he gets some rest.
McLemore does virtually no ball handling on this team and only has the responsibility to create off the bounce by attacking closeouts. He has good speed on straight line drives but doesn’t have a tight handle to create separation when forced to dribble from side to side or good instincts to pass out of dribble penetration. He shot 24 percent on 154 drives and posted a 5.4 percent assist rate (far below average among position peers) last season. Lost balls and bad passes accounted for 72 of his 96 turnovers.
Because of his hot start, opponents have been forced to close out on McLemore with more urgency this season and he has been able to attack them off balance. Only 20 percent of his shots have been taken at the rim but he has finished them at a 76.2 percent clip. Some of it is transition scoring (he is an explosive finisher in the open court) but McLemore is also shooting 50 percent on 21 drives at the moment. His assist rate is only marginally improved and remains below average for a shooting guard, but he showed some flashes of nice passing on the move during Saturday’s game against the Timberwolves. His free throw rate remains painfully low, though, as he is averaging only 1.3 foul shots per 36 minutes.
On the other end, Malone has to at least be pleased with McLemore’s effort. He gets in his stance when guarding the ball and has contributed to the Kings’ improved effort in trying to keep opponents from getting to the middle of the floor on the pick-and-roll. He has also proven to be very attentive to his help responsibilities, aggressively rotating off the weakside. McLemore is capable of playing above the rim as a shot blocker but that hasn’t translated into much at this point, as opponents have shot 66.7 percent at the rim when he has crashed inside to help. It has resulted in a top 25 ranking in defensive rebounding rate among position peers, though.
McLemore is still prone to getting beat backdoor and struggles navigating off ball screens, particularly concerning because Malone has tasked him with chasing the opponents’ top shooter on most nights. But Sacramento has also benefited from his presence on the defensive end, allowing just 100.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and 108.7 when he hits the bench, which is the opposite of what happened last season.
Editor’s Note: Rafael Uehara is the managing editor of ‘Basketball Scouting’. More of his work can be found here or at Upside & Motor, where he is a regular contributor. He can be followed on twitter as @rafael_uehara.