In the minutes and hours after one of the best performances in recent Kansas basketball history, Ben McLemore’s cell phone was pinging with text and Twitter messages.
One of those texts came from Richard Boyd, a cousin back in St. Louis who had watched at home Wednesday night as the Jayhawks beat Iowa State 97-89 in overtime. Boyd, nearly 20 years older than McLemore, saw his cousin come of age while following the game on the north side of St. Louis. And after McLemore scored 33 points and banked in a game-tying three-pointer that forced overtime, Boyd kept coming back to one thought.
“I told him I felt like I was watching Jordan in Game 6,” Boyd said, recalling Michael Jordan’s masterful performance against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals.
That was just one of the messages. By Friday morning, McLemore had been receiving messages for a full 24 hours. His point total was just two shy of Danny Manning’s KU freshman single-game record. And McLemore had done it with stunning efficiency, hoisting 12 shots and making 6 of 6 from three-point range. Even he couldn’t escape the avalanche of praise.
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“I guess they were thinking it was one of the best performances in Kansas history,” McLemore said on Friday morning.
The question now, of course, is what comes next? In 14 games, McLemore is averaging a team-high 16.9 points while shooting 51 percent. McLemore and Kansas (13-1, 1-0 Big 12) return to the court at 3 p.m. Saturday against Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas. And while McLemore’s production has been impressive — and his maturation process consistent — Kansas coach Bill Self still believes McLemore can do more on the offensive end.
Put up 33 points again? Maybe not. But after he averaged nine shots during KU’s last three games, McLemore could be more assertive.
“A lot of it’s on him being aggressive,” Self said. “He takes good shots. But the other night, he took some marginal shots that went in. He was more aggressive the other night. He just didn’t get as many opportunities.”
The Jayhawks have been a balanced offensive team this season with four players averaging double figures. But they also have McLemore, a player with the potential to score 25 most nights — even if it’s in his personality to let the game come to him.
“In Ben’s case,” Self said, “if he’s got daylight, he needs to look to score.”
For McLemore, much of the challenge is playing without the ball. According to Self, Kansas has run plenty of plays for McLemore. And perhaps they’ll even run more. But for a player that doesn’t hunt for shots, McLemore must be more active within the confines of the offense, putting himself in better position to use his natural scoring ability.
“(I need to) get open one pass away,” McLemore said, “and just try to create little things offensively for myself.”
In many ways, McLemore is not totally comfortable being the Jayhawks’ front man on offense — or at least admitting that he is. After the Jayhawks’ victory at Ohio State in December, McLemore broke into an impromptu locker-room dance that could only be described as a form of a joyous Russian jig. The clip of the dance soon went viral online, amazing even McLemore.
“We were just dancing,” he says.
Questions about his breakout season are generally followed by answers that credit his teammates and include the phrase “just working hard everyday.” Self has called McLemore a “sponge,” and his veteran teammates have taken notice.
“He listens to Coach,” senior center Jeff Withey said. “He does everything the right way. He’s a great teammate; that matters a lot.”
It’s those intangibles that have helped McLemore find success early. And they may just help him take the next step.
“I would like to keep on performing like this, each and every day,” McLemore said. “Just going to the gym, working hard every day.”