Ben McLemore returns to Lawrence to improve on rookie NBA season

05/08/2014 7:02 PM

05/08/2014 7:02 PM

There are many frustrating things about being an NBA rookie, the least of which is the creative hazing. Ben McLemore spent part of his first season in Sacramento with a pink backpack slung around his shoulder — the roundish, cutesy logo on full display.

“Hello Kitty,” McLemore says.

But the worst part about being a rookie, of course, is that the veterans rarely listen to what you’re saying. Let McLemore explain. So during the final weeks of the NBA regular season, he began to tell some Kings teammates that he was headed back to Kansas for the summer. The reaction, McLemore says, was often one of confusion or apathy.

Ben is going to spend the summer hanging out in Kansas? OK.

“No,” McLemore would tell them. “I’m going back to work on my classes and get my degree.”

On Thursday afternoon, McLemore pushed through the doors of Allen Fieldhouse and stepped on the floor for a workout with a member of the Sacramento Kings player development staff. Just one year after leaving KU after a record-breaking freshman season, McLemore plans to spend the summer back here in Lawrence, working on his game and pecking away at the hours he needs to graduate.

It will be an uphill battle, one that could take a few years. Even when you add in the hours he took during his redshirt freshman season in 2011-12, McLemore estimates he’s still close to 48 hours short of graduation.

So you might say this sounds like an unnecessary time investment. McLemore made $2.89 million as a rookie, and will make millions more in the next couple years. But for McLemore, the former All-Big 12 standout, the decision is as symbolic as it is practical.

When McLemore arrived at Kansas in 2011, he was deemed a partial qualifier — unable to play in games for an entire year. Nearly three years later, he’d like to show how far he’s come.

“I think it’s very important for me,” McLemore says. “For anybody to get their degree, especially a college degree. And also, it’ll put a big smile on my mom’s face.”

McLemore also believes he can use the quiet Lawrence summer to his advantage. He’s rented a townhome here. He’s still trying to figure out a specific major; spending just two years left him some options. He’ll bond with some old teammates, and he’ll scrimmage some of the younger Jayhawks.

His rookie campaign was solid, of course, but mostly incomplete for a top-10 pick. But still just three years removed from his senior year of high school, McLemore has time to meet expectations and scrape toward his ceiling.

“It definitely was harder,” McLemore says of the NBA transition. “But at the same time, the guy I am, I like to work hard and learn. And I wanted to learn the game and just get better.”

After falling to No. 7 in last year’s NBA Draft, McLemore averaged 8.8 points and 2.9 rebounds while averaging 27 minutes per game for the rebuilding Kings, who finished 28-54. There were plenty of “Welcome to the NBA” moments — nights guarding All-Star shooting guards, long road trips, teammates shuffling in and out of the roster.

By the end of the season, McLemore estimates that he and fellow rookie Ray McCallum had played with 13 new teammates.

“It’s definitely a business,” McLemore says. “That’s one thing I learned going into the NBA. As soon as I got there, there were guys just leaving, instantly.”

If that didn’t hit home, it certainly did in February. Kings general manager Pete D’Alessandro had to publically squash rumors that McLemore was being dangled in trade talks involving the Boston Celtics.

“I’m standing here today and I’m saying Ben McLemore is a guy that we have not put in deals,” D’Alessandro told reporters then. “He’s a guy that we love here.”

McLemore finished the season on a high, scoring 31 points with five rebounds in a season-finale loss to Phoenix. He averaged nearly 14 points per game in the month of March, and D’Alessandro reiterated that McLemore is part of the Kings future.

But his first taste of the NBA left McLemore with some pretty clear thoughts. For one, he needs to improve his game. His ballhandling needs some maintenance; his play-making ability does, too.

“The things I needed to work on at the University of Kansas are the same things I need to work on in the NBA,” McLemore said. “Everybody is a lot faster, stronger … everybody all the way down to the bench can play.”

On Thursday, McLemore pounded a halfway inflated ball into the ground during a drill, working on his touch and feel. As he began to sweat, the lights reflected off the empty bleachers inside Allen Fieldhouse. It’s probably safe to say that a lot of people would enjoy going back to college for a summer. McLemore is one of those people, at least, and this is where he wants to be for the next three months.

“A lot of people wait until two years before they try to go back, and it’s too late.” McLemore says. “It makes it even harder to do. I have this opportunity to do it.”

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