The Sacramento Kings will be fascinating to watch next season. Making the playoffs under the environment of dysfunction that surrounds the franchise will obviously be a hard task. Yet that’s the mandate in Sacramento. Ownership wants a winning team by the time the new arena opens next year and has pushed for short-term moves to make the team competitive. Coach George Karl is chasing the all-time win record. They need to at least be in the mix for the eighth spot or the offseason will have been a failure.
Obviously DeMarcus Cousins needs to be healthy and motivated for that to happen, but it won’t be enough. Not only will the other high-profile members of the team be required to step up, but also the role players to make this season different than others. None will be more important than third-year shooting guard Ben McLemore.
The seventh pick of the 2013 draft is entering what could be a defining moment in his career. After a rocky rookie year in which he was painfully inefficient as a scorer and close to a liability on defense, McLemore showed improvement as a sophomore that’ll hopefully carry over to next season.
He’s far from a lockdown defender but his effort level and focus on that end have grown. He went from a drain to the defense to an asset. His real defensive plus-minus jumped from -2.68 to 0.71. The effect reverberated at a team level, where the Kings allowed six fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the court. His quickness, athleticism and tenacity have masked some still shaky fundamentals to make him a decent wing defender:
McLemore drew comparisons to Ray Allen prior to the draft that always seemed hyperbolic. The 37 percent from the field and 32 percent he shot from beyond the arc his rookie year made them downright laughable. In his second season he hasn’t come close to earning them, but he certainly improved, connecting on 36 percent of his threes while launching almost five per game. He was particularly good from the corners:
The spacing he provided boosted the team’s offensive output by almost three points per 100 possessions.
If the development the former Kansas Jayhawk showed in Year 2 continues, he seems well on his way to being a very good 3-and-D player. That might seem like an unfitting role for a top 10 pick, but good low usage, high efficiency players who can play both ways have become essential to building good teams. The Kings in particular are in desperate need of someone like that.
Cousins used the third-highest percentage of his team’s possessions last year, behind only Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade. Rudy Gay ranked 19th in the league in that category. Rajon Rondo isn’t a typical high usage player — mostly because he doesn’t shoot enough — but he needs the ball in his hands to create. With the three on the court at the same time, the last thing the team needs is another player who wants touches.
It unclear who Karl will designate as the starting power forward, but the team simply doesn’t have a stretch big man on its roster. The other three starters don’t have range extending to the three-point line. McLemore will be asked to be the team’s designated spot-up shooter, playing off the ball almost all the time and pulling the trigger when the ball gets to his hands. If he can up his percentage from beyond the arc a couple percentage points, he should be able to prevent the defense from packing the paint completely.
Just like with his shot, even marginal improvement on defense would help the team enormously. Gay is good on that end when he’s focused and Caron Butler somewhat makes up for his loss of quickness with toughness and savvy. Marco Belinelli, however, is at best a neutral defender, so McLemore will need to be the stopper at the shooting-guard position. No one expects him to be Tony Allen, but after two years in the league, the mental mistakes should decrease and consistency is to be expected.
Such a limited role isn’t what most young players dream off. Winning cures all, so McLemore will surely accept it if the team finds early success. But he’s eligible for an extension next summer, and if he wants to secure one, he’ll need to pop in some way. Fortunately, Karl can offer him that opportunity in the form of transition buckets.
Under Karl, the Kings ranked sixth in pace and sixth in fast break points. Easy buckets on the break were a staple of the Denver teams the current Kings coach led and will be a big part of what he brings to Sacramento. In his last year with the Nuggets, he turned the athletic but limited Corey Brewer into a 12-point-per-game scorer thanks in no small part to fast break opportunities. McLemore should thrive with the freedom to occasionally leak out and always fill lanes:
McLemore is one of the few players on the Kings’ roster who could be a pleasant surprise. His upside, at this point at least, doesn’t suggest he can be a star anytime soon, but that’s not what Sacramento needs anyway. What he’ll be asked to do is space the floor, defend and run. If he can do that consistently — a big if, considering his struggles in that area in the past — he could be the glue that holds the starting lineup together and cement his status as a core piece for the future.
Cousins, Rondo, Gay, Karl and owner Vivek Ranadive will get the headlines, whether the team does well or flames out. The offseason additions will need to provide quality depth that has been missing for years. McLemore will likely fly under the radar, but make no mistake: for the Kings to return to relevancy, he’ll need to live up to his potential on both ends.