By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – The stubbornness stands out.
That’s not a character flaw for Ben McLemore as he prepares for a major transition in his still young but promising NBA career. In this case, it’s actually a transformational strength.
As the final months played out in what proved to be his fourth and final season in Sacramento, McLemore consistently deflected questions about his looming free agency and whether he felt it was time to part with the franchise that selected him with the No. 7 overall pick in the 2013 draft.
McLemore simply refused to look too far ahead.
Fittingly, there was a similar level of resistance when, after signing a two-year deal this week as one of the Grizzlies’ top targets in free agency, McLemore declined to reflect much on his past with the Kings.
We felt this is a spot that’s going to be great for me. Now that I’m here, I can focus on myself, grind it out, continue to have a great summer and get ready for next season.
“I’m just moving on right now as a member of the Grizzlies,” the 6-foot-5 guard told Grind City Media of a much-needed fresh start. “We felt this is a spot that’s going to be great for me. Now that I’m here, I can focus on myself, grind it out, continue to have a great summer and get ready for next season.”
In short, this transaction represents an opportunistic pairing of two sides that were ready to move on. After struggling to settle into a comfort zone through four turbulent seasons in Sacramento, McLemore embraces a chance to reestablish himself in a defined role with Memphis and live up to the potential that had some talent evaluators projecting him as the best prospect in his draft class.
For the Grizzlies, the 24-year-old McLemore represents the ultimate low-risk, high-reward prospect who potentially addresses the team’s need for youth, athleticism and shooting on the wing to pair in the backcourt alongside veteran point guard Mike Conley. If McLemore can even scratch the surface of his potential as a defender and finisher in Memphis, the Grizzlies will have secured one of the biggest bargains in free agency on a two-year, $10.7 million deal.
Grind City Media’s Michael Wallace catches up with the Grizzlies’ latest free-agent signee to talk about his transition to Memphis.
Memphis is a team in transition on the perimeter, where a combination of injuries and a constant search for chemistry led to five different players starting at shooting guard. The Grizzlies finished 43-39 last season, made the playoffs for a seventh consecutive year and lost to the Spurs in the first round. After the season, coach David Fizdale and general manager Chris Wallace said among the team’s priorities was to add more speed, playmaking and shooting in the backcourt.
The Grizzlies and Kings have spent the initial days of free agency indirectly swapping players. Veteran forward Zach Randolph, 35, agreed to a two-year, $24 million deal with the Kings on Tuesday and swingman Vince Carter, 40, landed a one-year, $8 million contract from Sacramento on Thursday. It remains unclear whether the Grizzlies will bring back shooting guard Tony Allen, 35.
But on Friday, the Memphis bolstered its depth at the guard spots when it reached a one-year, $3.3 million deal with former University of Memphis star Tyreke Evans, who has split his eight-year career between stints with the Kings and Pelicans. What seems certain is that McLemore and Evans, who has averaged 16.1 points over his career, will get clear shots to fill Memphis’ void at the position.
“Just the style of play, sitting and talking with my agent, Rich Paul, and mapping out things I can help this team with, things I can do for this team,” said McLemore, who shot a career-high 38.2 percent on threes last season. “I was like, ‘This is the place.’ (Paul) felt the same way, and I was like, ‘Let’s roll with it.’”
McLemore feels at home with the Grizzlies for two reasons. First, the St. Louis native is back in the region where many of his relatives reside, and he spent the initial days of free agency last week at a family reunion in the Ozarks. Secondly, he’s with a team committed to clearing time for him to play.
After playing all 82 games through each of his first two seasons in Sacramento, McLemore’s role fluctuated drastically the past two seasons as he dealt with minor injuries and significant philosophical and coaching changes. The Kings had four coaches – Mike Malone, Ty Corbin, George Karl and Dave Joerger – during McLemore’s four seasons in Sacramento.
Drafted to eventually replace former University of Memphis star Tyreke Evans, McLemore started 137 of his first 164 games with the Kings and averaged a career-highs of 12.1 and 32.6 minutes in his second season. But his confidence wavered along with his playing time the past two seasons. Karl preferred veterans and Joerger adjusted his rotation last season after the blockbuster DeMarcus Cousins trade.
Each year, the Kings kept bringing in players at McLemore’s position, from Arron Afflalo to Garrett Temple to Malachi Richardson to Buddy Hield. Despite the constant turnover, McLemore never really benefited from a clean slate.
“Every year, they draft a guy in my spot, so nothing is handed to me,” McLemore told the Sacramento Bee last September before training camp. “Each and every day, I’m going to work my butt off to prove I’m worthy of that spot. That’s the competitiveness and drive in me.”
McLemore emerged from a slump with an encouraging finish last season. During a 15-game stretch, he started 11 games and averaged 11.8 points while shooting 50.7 percent from three-point range. McLemore scored at least 13 points in six of the Kings’ final eight games and twice finished with 22.
So he arrives in Memphis on a bit of an upswing, eager to see how his game continues to evolve alongside elite playmakers in Conley and All-Star center Marc Gasol.
“Their communication and the way they play as a team,” McLemore said of what he noticed from afar about his new team. “The way Mike Conley moves the ball, and Marc moves the ball as a great passer at that position. Coming in, I definitely can adjust to that, running the floor for Mike and cutting to the basket for Marc. Obviously my shooting ability and athleticism (will help). And it’s also about playing both ends of the floor, being a two-way player. Because we all know they’re going to defend.”
These are career and life-altering moments for McLemore.
After he experienced the birth of his first child this past spring, he hopes signing with the Grizzlies starts the rebirth of his basketball career next season.
“Everything’s in front of me,” McLemore insists.
So, really, there’s little reason to look back.
The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.