CHICAGO — Playing four nights a week against grown men and being counted on for 20 points a game doesn’t rattle Ben McLemore.
Not being allowed to play an entire winter? That rattled McLemore.
That was his freshman year at Kansas, after he attended two different high schools – Oak Hill Academy in Virginia and Christian Life Center in Texas – as a senior. The NCAA ruled him a partial qualifier, meaning he had to sit out a year from competition and couldn’t even practice until spring semester.
It was depressing and disorienting. But rather than transfer McLemore toughed it out. He was so good as a sophomore – averaging 15.9 points per game, and shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range – that the 6-foot-5 shooting guard is now a contender to be the top pick in June’s NBA draft.
He doesn’t begrudge the NCAA for ruling the way it did. In the long run, the NCAA did him a favor.
“That redshirt year became a blessing. I was either in the gym, working with the coaches, or studying,” McLemore said Friday at the Draft Combine. “The next year I was ready to show what I could do.”
McLemore came from poverty growing up in St. Louis. He lived in a 600-square-foot house with as many as 10 relatives. His older brother is in prison for a break-in and a shooting. McLemore has promised to move his younger brother, a high school senior, wherever the NBA sends him, to ensure the kid has a better life.
Throughout a chaotic childhood he questioned if he would ever get a chance to express his basketball talent. During high school, he could be particularly quiet, seemingly unassertive.
“I could see myself as a superstar at the next level,” he said. “Hard work pays off. Before this I probably doubted I’d be in this position. But now I’m here.”
He has NBA shooting range and demonstrated a 42-inch vertical leap during physical testing in Chicago. He’s often compared to a young Ray Allen: A natural shooter, but also a superior athlete.
In this weak 2013 draft, that’s appealing.
“I can do a lot of things: Great shooting ability, great leaping ability, quickness,” McLemore said. “People say I’m there. I feel like I still have to work for it. At the same time, I can make history.”
The Charlotte Bobcats were one of 11 teams to meet with McLemore in Chicago.
Usually the draft lottery is held before the Combine, so the draft order is established. This year the lottery is Tuesday. Since no one knows who will have a top-3 pick, McLemore said he met with every team that asked him.
McLemore makes some sense for the Bobcats, who will have a top-5 pick. They need more scoring options, and he would serve as insurance at shooting guard should restricted free agent Gerald Henderson sign elsewhere.
That tiny house in St. Louis might be in McLemore’s past, but he can’t completely detach himself from those years. His former AAU coach, Darius Cobb, claimed in a USA Today story that he accepted $10,000, plus several plane tickets, from an aspiring agent looking to sign McLemore.
McLemore was asked constantly about the AAU coach during various media sessions at the Combine. He answered each question calmly and directly, asserting he did nothing wrong.
“The things he said are a lie,” McLemore said. “What he said was a kind of personal attack on guys helping me with this (drafting) process. Whatever he did or said wasn’t true.”
McLemore is no longer under NCAA control, but he has said he would cooperate with any investigation, hoping to avoid any trouble for Kansas.
More than likely, he and Kentucky center Nerlens Noel will go 1-2 in either order next month. And as much as McLemore feels he has earned the top distinction, he finds it all an amazing progression.
“I came from nowhere, from nothing,” McLemore said. “Just the idea (that) I could end up the No. 1 pick is such a blessing. I’m going to work for it, same way he is. It’s definitely neck-and-neck.”