No player has risen up draft boards this season faster than Kansas freshmen Ben McLemore. While most freshman phenoms are household names by their senior year in high school, McLemore wasn't ranked among the top 10 players at his position by the recruiting services. After sitting out last year due to academic issues, McLemore was well off the national radar when the season began. As the only freshman in a starting lineup with four seniors, all of whom played major roles on last season's Final Four team, McLemore wasn't expected to have a featured role for the Jayhawks.
In Bill Self's offense, which emphasizes ball movement and post scoring, it's not easy for a perimeter player to emerge as a superstar. However, as soon as the games began, McLemore's talent was too obvious to ignore. He has prototypical size (6'5, 195 pounds) for an NBA shooting guard as well as a textbook shooting form and athleticism that jumps off the screen. He's one of the smoothest players in the country: everything McLemore does on the court looks absolutely effortless.
He's the rare shooting guard who can dominate the game without forcing the action. Statistically, he is the model of efficiency. He scored 33 points on 13 shots in an OT win against Iowa State and 30 points on 13 shots against Kansas State on Monday. There are a lot of shooting guards in college basketball who can average 17 points a game, very few who can do so while shooting 53 percent from the floor. More often than not, McLemore scores within the flow of the offense rather than hunting for his own shot.
If there is a criticism of his game, it's that he doesn't "impose his will" on the action enough. A lot of elite scorers, like Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA, have a tough time giving up the ball, but McLemore has no problem passing multiple times in one possession. He doesn't need to be the focal point of the offense to be successful. Even though he isn't an advanced ball-handler, the threat of his jumper and his elite first step allow him to get his own shot whenever he wants. What makes McLemore different is that he's the rare 20-year-old who understands the difference between can and should on the basketball court.
"Hero ball" has become such an ingrained part of NBA mythology that unselfish superstars, especially on the perimeter, are viewed as suspect. For years, if LeBron James ran a play in the final minutes that got his teammate an open shot, it was held against him. Did he lack the clutch gene!? But while dominating the basketball and consistently hitting seemingly impossible shots made Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant icons, it's had mixed results for the mortals who have followed them.
Kobe, Manu Ginobili and Dwyane Wade are all well into their 30s, but there aren't any elite shooting guards in the 25-29 age range to replace them. Brandon Roy, the best shooting guard in the 2006 draft, had his career cut short by injury, but J.R. Smith (2004), Gerald Green (2005) and Nick Young (2007) are all in the prime of their careers. Strictly from a talent perspective, there's no reason they shouldn't be competing for All-Star berths. However, since they never learned to play within a team concept, they've been relegated to roles as bench scorers. There's a whole generation of guys who lost their way trying to be Kobe but wound up as Jamal Crawford instead.
While everyone gives credit to MJ for his peerless statistics in the age of the hand check, comparing players across eras cuts two ways. In Jordan's heyday, teams couldn't play zones and there was only so much you could to corral an elite perimeter scorer. In the modern NBA, thanks in part to teams embracing Tom Thibodeau's "flooding the zone" defensive principles, there's a diminishing marginal utility to one guy dominating the basketball. The Celtics have been surprisingly successful without Rajon Rondo because the ball moves more easily around the floor, while, over the last few years, 50-point games have almost completely vanished.
For elite players, it's no longer enough to hunt for your own shot, you have to hunt for the most efficient shot on the floor. It's no coincidence that James Harden and Eric Gordon, the two best under-25 shooting guards in the NBA, are also accomplished passers who can create open shots for their teammates. A generation ago, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade would have competed to see who could score the most points in a game; now they compete to see who can be the most efficient from the floor.
McLemore's teammates and coaches have been urging him to take on a bigger role in their offense, but that shouldn't necessarily mean taking more shots. Assists, not field goal attempts, are what's holding him back from being a legitimate superstar. Since no one else on Kansas demands a double team, McLemore is the one who needs to get guys like Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford open shots. The days of an elite shooting guard taking 25+ shots a game have come and gone; McLemore has the chance to be the star of a new era of basketball.
And now, the other Jayhawks we could see in the NBA.
Shot creation: Withey has worked diligently on his offensive game since coming to Kansas, but he's still a fairly limited individual scorer. At 7'0 and 235 pounds, physics are against him on the low block: it's relatively easy for stronger guys with lower centers of gravity to push him off his spot. Nor is he skilled or fluid enough to face up and take them off the dribble. At the next level, he'll have to move without the basketball and depend on his guards to set him up for shots in the paint. (13 points on 56 percent shooting, 5.2 free throw attempts a game)
Defense: A former volleyball player, Withey does an excellent job of moving his feet and protecting the rim. However, his lack of brawn will make it difficult for him to hold defensive position against stronger NBA centers. On the next level, just being an elite shot-blocker isn't enough. In the NBA, guards are skilled and intelligent enough not to dribble right into the chest of a 7-footer and keep up throwing up weak shot after weak shot for 40 minutes. I watched him get 12 blocks against San Jose State; it was one of the more sad/hilarious things I've ever seen. (4 blocks, 1 steal a game)
Perimeter shot: In theory, he should be a good outside shooter. He's a relatively skilled player with a career 72 percent free throw percentage. Unfortunately, due to his role in the Kansas offense, he rarely takes the 15-20 foot jumper. He'll need to make that shot to stick on the next level. (Shooting 56/0/69 on percentages this season)
Rebounding: Withey averages a respectable 8.2 rebounds a game, although his total rebounding percentage (15.2) isn't that impressive. This is where his thin frame becomes an issue, as it's unclear whether he'll be able to hold up the physicality of an NBA paint.
Passing: Like most of Self's big men, Withey is capable of making the correct pass out of the high post and serving as a cog in the offense. Last season, he played a nice high/low game with Thomas Robinson. (Averaging 1 assist, 2 turnovers a game)
Best case: Theo Ratliff
Worst case: Greg Stiemsma
Elijah Johnson: Kansas was supposed to be his team this season, but Johnson has really struggled since taking over the PG role after Tyshawn Taylor's graduation. He's got an intriguing combination of size, skill and athleticism at 6'4 and 195 pounds, but nothing he's done in his senior season suggests he's ready to fill a role on an NBA roster. He's not a good enough ball-handler or decision-maker to run point, a good enough shooter to be a "3-and-D" PG or an explosive enough scorer to be a combo guard. The Jayhawks' season will depend, in large part, on whether Self can find a way to maximize Johnson's talents in the next month. Either way, he could still be a guy worth following in the D-League. (9 points, 4.5 assists and 3 rebounds on 37/32/71 shooting)
Jamari Traylor: An athletic 6'8, 220-pound freshman forward with the physique of a grown man, Traylor is still a raw bundle of fast-twitch muscles at this point. However, Thomas Robinson didn't look all that much better when he was a freshman. Withey, for that matter, didn't look like he'd ever be able to contribute when he first got to Lawrence. There's no one in the country better at developing big men than Self, so it will be interesting to track Traylor's growth over the next few seasons.
Perry Ellis: Another raw freshman forward who hasn't done much of anything this season. Ellis, at 6'8 and 225 pounds, isn't anywhere near Traylor as an athlete, but he seems to be slightly further ahead in skill development at this point.
Naadir Tharpe: An athletic 5'11, 170-pound sophomore PG, Tharpe has struggled with the mental demands of being a floor general this season. But if Johnson gets moved to an off-ball role, Tharpe is the logical choice to replace him as the nominal PG. At his size, he doesn't have the luxury of having many holes in his game to make it to the next level, but if he can polish his game over the next two seasons, he might be able to turn himself into an NBA prospect as a senior.
Rio Adams and Andrew White III: White (6'6, 210) and Adams (6'3, 190) are both freshman guards who were well-regarded prospects coming out of high school, but there just haven't been many minutes for either this season.