By JEREMY WOO
Special to ZAGSBLOG
CHICAGO — Who’s No.1?
Ben McLemore certainly has a case in next month’s NBA Draft.
One of several names thrown around as the potential top overall pick, the smooth shooting guard from Kansas made his case at the Chicago Pre-Draft Combine.
The consensus seems to be that this year’s draft is historically week, and the confusion at the top of the class reflects that.
Although Kentucky big man Nerlens Noel is regarded as the likely No. 1 pick, McLemore, injured UNLV star Anthony Bennett and Indiana guard Victor Oladipo have each been mentioned as potential No. 1 picks. Some have even speculated that Michigan point guard Trey Burke could go first, depending on how the lottery order falls. The big picture remains unclear.
The Draft Lottery will take place Tuesday night in New York, and it’s entirely possible that the Orlando Magic or New Orleans Pelicans — both of which have young big men — could trade the rights to presumed No. 1 pick Noel should the ping pong balls fall their way.
“Makes more sense for New Orleans to trade it,” one Western Conference GM told SNY.tv. “Noel is a power forward and a perfect complement to [center] Nikola [Vucevic].”
Still, McLemore could present the highest upside of them all.
An elite athlete, standing 6-foot-5 with a 42-inch vertical, McLemore’s uncanny scoring ability has established him as a legit top-three choice.
“This year’s Brad Beal,” the GM said of McLemore.
The chance to hear his name called first next month has helped keep McLemore motivated.
“It’s definitely important to me, but not just because people say I’m [a top pick],” said McLemore. “I still have to work for it. At the same time, I want to make history. It’s been a while since a shooting guard has gone No. 1. It would definitely mean a lot to me.”
Of late, McLemore has been surrounded by controversy after his former AAU coach Darius Cobb admitted taking money to steer the talented guard toward potential agents. McLemore still has yet to choose an agent, and remains focused on his NBA aspirations in spite of it all.
“I’m just trying to get through the process,” McLemore said, “to get to that special day where I can walk across that stage and say to myself ‘I made it.’ Down the road, however my career goes, I’m just going to keep working hard each and every day.”
Drawing comparisons to a more athletic Ray Allen, McLemore averaged 15.9 points and 5.2 rebounds as a redshirt freshman last season. Kansas coach Bill Self called him the most talented player he’s ever coached. The St. Louis native helped lead Kansas to its ninth straight Big 12 title and a Sweet 16 appearance.
Some scouts have raised concerns about McLemore’s makeup, saying that he lacks the “killer instinct” with a tendency to defer to others. But whether or not he’s cut out to be a team’s top scorer, his strengths will make him tough to pass on.
“I can do a lot of things,” said McLemore. “I have great shooting ability, great leaping ability, quickness and I can guard pretty well. I know every night I’m going to go out there, give it my all and be a dog.”
Though he sat out a year, along with fellow Jayhawk Jamari Traylor, due to academic ineligibility, the work McLemore put in made him an immediate force at the college level. He says the whole experience turned out productive, and given where his draft stock lies, it’s hard to disagree.
“It was kind of tough,” he said. “At the same time I put in the work to get where I’m at now. That redshirt year was a blessing. I stayed in the gym, did some extra stuff and worked with the coaches. The following year I had the chance to show my talent and perform, and that’s what I did.”
McLemore grew up in extreme poverty, the second youngest of six children, with his mother working multiple jobs to make ends meet. His NBA contract will drastically change things for his family, still based in St. Louis. McLemore says his youngest brother Kevin, now a high school senior, will live with him wherever he ends up.
All of that is motivation. Until he signs that contract, McLemore will keep grinding. And no matter where he calls home, the hard work won’t stop. After all, that mentality is all he’s ever known.
“It’s still a dream to me right now,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m in this position, to provide for myself and for my family. It hasn’t hit me yet, that I’m here and about to head to the NBA. It’s just a blessing.”