For Better or Worse: Ben McLemore

Ben McLemore was drafted 7th in the 2013 NBA Draft and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was drafted eighth. Caldwell-Pope has had a better career, playing in 586 games. McLemore has appeared in 471 games. The minutes disparity of both players is another chasm. Nearly 17,000 minutes for Caldwell-Pope and 10,000 minutes for McLemore. The stability of Caldwell-Pope’s career is evident in his Win Shares, 29.9. McLemore’s Win Shares is 7.9. Organizational stability matters. The Lakers are the opposite of what McLemore is used to.

For the first time in his career, Ben McLemore is part of a structured organization led by a generational talent who, even when he isn’t playing, has a pulse on team chemistry. Scoring matters less to LeBron James than effort, work habits, and selflessness.

Ben McLemore has never been the center of attention as a pro. He got a taste of national exposure when he played for Kansas but eight years have passed since then and he’s mostly played for organizations in chaos. This season his averages are unremarkable, even for him. His 7.4 ppg is a huge drop off from last year’s 10.1 ppg. McLemore is shooting a dismal 33.1% from three. In his previous two seasons, he scored the three-ball at a 40% clip. Inexperienced in the post-season, McLemore has only played in 11 playoff games, averaging just under 12 minutes and 4.0 ppg.

Isolated, the numbers are grim. He’s shooting 23% in the 3rd quarter. 27% of his threes go in the last three minutes of any quarter (48 attempts), and only 31.4% of his jump shots are scores. On a positive note, when the game is tight, within five points, he’s a 41.5% three-point shot maker but that assumes he’s going to be on the floor when the game is close.

The Lakers had no other prospects to curate and some think they scraped the bottom of the barrel with McLemore because they were desperate. Their two-year struggle with 3-point shooting is their lone Achilles heel, besides untimely injuries.

The teams ahead of the Lakers in the West standings thrive at perimeter shooting. They are top-10 three-point shotmakers. Utah is ranked 2nd, Phoenix is 8th, the Clippers are 1st, and Denver is 5th.  The hope is that McLemore can make uncontested shots, particularly when it counts. Garbage buckets don’t matter. The Lakers roster is made up of reluctant and inefficient shooters. Talen Horton-Tucker only makes 26% of his threes. Wesley Matthews has been a huge disappointment as a distance shooter and Dennis Schroder misses wide-open shots.

McLemore’s last place of employment, the Houston Rockets, was a disaster from the opening of training camp when James Harden wanted out. It put the organization in survival mode and they never recovered. With Harden, the culture was always passive-aggressive and without him, the ship hit an iceberg and sunk.  Ben McLemore might just be one of those players who doesn’t function well in a chaotic environment and perhaps his numbers should be read that way. With chemistry, his output is higher. Without it, he is crossing dates off the calendar and waiting for Cancun. We’ll get a better sense of McLemore the next two weeks, before LeBron James has his return. Besides shooting, the Lakers need a guard who can pass the ball to the open man without turning it over.

Although his defense is inept, bordering on not caring, McLemore has never played for a defensive coach like Frank Vogel and with players that are dedicated to defense. I expect he’ll pick up his intensity and desire.

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On draft night 2013, there were two overwhelming stories: Anthony Bennett as the number one pick, a huge surprise, (Giannis Antetokounmpo was selected an hour later at 15th), and the drafting of Ben McLemore.

McLemore was raised in devastating poverty and despair, the kind of economic sorrow most humans never have to experience. His presence on the stage on draft night made him a champion, to paraphrase Russell Westbrook. McLemore’s brother was serving time when he was drafted. At one point in his life, 15 people were living in 600 square feet of house. But the NBA decided McLemore had something no one else did. He was the second shooting guard drafted in 2013. (Victor Oladipo was drafted ahead of McLemore at number 2.)

The draft stage in Brooklyn was worlds apart from the life Ben McLemore once lived. He went to school because he had to eat, that was priority number one. His high school was shut down because it lost its accreditation but by that time McLemore had an army of supporters who helped him change schools. He went to the same prep school that produced Carmelo Anthony, Oak Hill Academy.  But that wasn’t the answer either. He was dismissed for an honor code violation and finished high school at Christian Life School, located in Texas. At Kansas, he was academically ineligible and had to sit out a year.  That’s who was on the stage on draft night.  A kid who had seen the worst and was hoping to see the best.

Now he’s in Los Angeles, and for as long as the Lakers postseason run endures, McLemore will be treated like all Lakers are treated, criticized when he disappoints, adored when he is special. It is the after, that is the McLemore possibility. He’s coming to town cheap and if he can prove his worth and help the Lakers win a title, he may be the reason Kentavious Caldwell-Pope says goodbye.