LAWRENCE — If you want to be specific, it’s been more 15 months since Ben McLemore has played in an official basketball game. Real jerseys? Real referees? A scoreboard that mattered? McLemore can hardly remember what it feels like.
Just one year ago, McLemore showed up on Kansas’ campus as the centerpiece of the Jayhawks’ 2011 recruiting class, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard with a top-35 recruiting ranking and an hour’s worth of YouTube highlights. For a program that lost two backcourt starters off their 2010-11 team, McLemore was expected to battle for playing time in the Jayhawks’ guard rotation.
That was, of course, until the NCAA ruled McLemore and fellow freshman Jamari Traylor as partial qualifiers, forcing them to sit out a season.
“The toughest part was just not being able to play,” McLemore says.
But during the next six months, as Kansas matured into a Final Four team, McLemore began his own transition, morphing in an intriguing curiosity among followers of the program. One week, KU was publishing video of McLemore dunking with his head level with the rim. Another week, KU coach Bill Self was crediting McLemore with helping KU’s guards — including Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson — grow into a unit worthy of a long NCAA run.
On most days, Self says now, McLemore was the third-most talented player in practice behind Taylor and All-American forward Thomas Robinson. Other days, he might have even been better. There is, of course, a difference between talent, skill and being an impact player in the Big 12, and Self is quick to cut a clear line between the categories. But if you were to grade McLemore on talent — shooting, athleticism, defending — his skills set him apart.
“If you ask Thomas and Tyshawn,” Self says, “They’ll probably tell you the same thing.”
These days, one year after first arriving on campus, McLemore is finally ready to take the hold off his college career and prepare for life without Taylor and Robinson.
Last week, on a quiet summer afternoon on campus, McLemore showed up to Kansas’ athletic department offices with a specially made black T-shirt. On the front was LeBron James, basketball’s biggest superstar decked out in full Miami Heat regalia. And on the back was the message, “Wellston’s Finest” — a tribute to his hometown, a tough neighborhood on the outskirts of St. Louis.
Together, you’ll learn, the T-shirt helps explain how McLemore ended up here — a 19-year-old who tried to make the best of his year off.
The first part starts in Wellston, where McLemore spent three years at Wellston High School. McLemore’s grades were adequate, says Darius Cobb, who coached McLemore in AAU basketball in St. Louis. But he didn’t begin to take core classes until his junior year. The school would close down after that school year. And when McLemore split his senior year between Oak Hill Academy (Va.) and Christian Life Center (Texas), it left too many red flags for the NCAA to ignore.
The second part of the T-shirt story begins with James, who McLemore says he idolized as a kid. He would study his moves, study how he used his body, and try to model his game in the same way. So last year, when McLemore realized he had plenty of extra time on his hands, he started to use the same process to dissect KU’s own players.
“I was just observing all the guards,” McLemore says, “seeing what they was doing wrong and right. And just bringing it to my game, too.
“I’ve watched a lot of basketball. And I’ve learned a lot from it.”
For all the frustration and waiting, McLemore’s year off provided plenty of ancillary benefits. When he arrived at KU last summer, his lithe, 6-foot-5 frame carried just 185 pounds. And he had never lifted weights — at least, not anything close to the program KU strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy preached.
But soon, McLemore was on the Hudy plan, and with no game action to counteract the weight room work, McLemore says he put on 10 pounds of muscle and is now just a few double cheeseburgers shy of the 200-pound mark. One example: He’s putting up to 300 pounds on the bar during his clean sets.
“In the weight room,” McLemore says, “it’s ridiculous now. I can just lift stuff like crazy, like I never did before.”
When the school year finally ended, McLemore headed home to St. Louis in May to see his mother, Sonya. A few weeks later, he was back in Lawrence and his June schedule has included plenty of pickup games and NBA playoff viewing. He’s also following an old friend from back home — Florida freshman Brad Beal — as he goes through the NBA Draft process. Beal and he were always on the same path, McLemore says, until last year.
“Definitely kind of motivating,” McLemore says, “Just watching what he did. If I can do the same thing, I just wonder like, ‘Will I be in the same position as him?
“It’s just little things I think about. I also think about my future in college. I want to do all four years. My mom definitely wants me to get my degree. So my goal is to at least do four years.”
For now, he’s just waiting for his first chance, which could come when the Jayhawks take a summer exhibition trip to Europe in August. The games won’t count, of course. But for McLemore, at least it will finally feel real.
“Can’t wait,” McLemore says. “I think that’s really gonna be my debut.”