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KU needs to see more of McLemore, the star

  • The Kansas City Star
  • Published Tuesday, April 9, 2013, at 8:57 p.m.

— Ben McLemore is rising, laces of the ball lined perfectly in his hands, and there is nothing anyone in college basketball can do about this problem. Watch him, and you get the feeling he needs to be reminded of this every now and then.

Maybe seeing the swish and hearing the love will help. They gathered around him after the game, friends and TV cameras and loving strangers. McLemore is a star, and the sooner he understands that the sooner his Kansas basketball team can save its season.

“HAPPY BIRTHDAY” they sang, and turning 20 is as good a time as any to show what KU looks like at its best.

An NBA team will spend a very high draft pick and millions of dollars for him to do this in a different uniform next year. Nights like this — 30 points in a virtuoso performance with his teammates’ confidence admittedly rocked — will be what the people here talk about when he’s dunking on TNT broadcasts. But for now, he is KU’s treasure.

No. 14 Kansas beat down No. 10 K-State 83-62 in what amounted to a nationally televised therapy session for a freaked-out fan base, and you could see a lot of this coming. The people here screamed and they chanted and they screamed and they made a million signs and they also screamed. Man, this was loud. A frantic kind of loud, too.

Their signs said things like “WE SHALL OVERCOME” and “WE STILL BELIEVE,” all because of a three-game losing streak. They’ve won 103 of their last 105 here now. Their coping mechanisms are a bit rusty, you know.

“It’s not always who you play but when you play them,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said.

McLemore was the biggest reason all that angst looked so silly by the end. In a program of Paul Pierce and Danny Manning, no first-year Jayhawk has ever scored like this, at least not since NCAA rules kept Wilt Chamberlain off varsity as a freshman.

He is a college rookie starting with four seniors, a guy who celebrated his 20th birthday by showing why his teammates and coaches have been screaming at him all year to do more of this.

“I was talking to coach, and he was telling me just to go out there and play ball,” he said when essentially asked to brag about himself. “I don’t have to impress him, just play my game. That’s what I did.”

McLemore’s gift and curse are both somewhere in those words. He is that rare superstar without ego, a man with a multimillion dollar future but without the pampered past that can get in the way. He is still getting used to his talent, in other words, learning what it’s like for something as big as KU basketball to depend in large part on him showing his gifts.

In a wide-open college basketball season, KU figures to be one of the best 12 or so teams and that’s enough to dream big. But nobody in or around this program can imagine a happy ending to this season without McLemore playing more like a star and less like the most talented role player in the country.

This is all new to McLemore, still. He is a quiet kid from St. Louis overshadowed by Bradley Beal in high school and anonymous last year in Lawrence because he couldn’t play as a partial academic qualifier.

The truth is that the rising star is a sweet young man with a gentle heart who wants badly to make people around him happy. You can see this in his game. Watch him after a dunk or three-pointer, and chances are he will look to his friends and coaches on the bench and smile. He loves that feeling.

KU coach Bill Self has said he wants his team to play “freely,” to have fun and energy and the kind of enthusiasm that makes college kids forget for a moment the consequences of failure because they’re smiling at the possibilities of success.

Well, McLemore makes them free. He is the only lottery pick on this roster, the only one for whom the game comes, well, free. Basketball becomes a lot less complicated when a savant is drilling jumpers and slashing to the hoop. When McLemore makes basketball look easy, maybe it rubs off on his teammates, too.

“When we play well, this is what our team is,” Self said. “…This is closer to who we are if we play with the mind-set and focus and energy level.”

Self sometimes jokes that McLemore is like a show-horse who loves the adulation of success. When he runs and dunks and scores in flurries, the people around him are happy. That makes McLemore happy. But too often, McLemore wants to fit in. He’s a gifted player in every way, but too often chooses to blend in.

Self has said McLemore is the most talented freshman he’s coached, and the challenge from here out will be for him to show it. Those gifts come with responsibility, plus, these are the moments that make his teammates happy.

The message now will be for him to make them happy more often.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com

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