Ben McLemore had to keep shooting. The former No. 7 pick in the 2013 NBA Draft struggled out of the gate in his first 10 contests with the Rockets in 2019-20, averaging just 5.1 points per game while shooting 31.7% from three. Houston took a flier on the Kings' lottery flameout in the offseason, attempting to add to its collection of quick-trigger wings surrounding James Harden. But through 10 games, general manager Daryl Morey appeared to have whiffed on his latest free-agent addition.
The Kansas product has turned the tide over the last two weeks. McLemore is averaging 18 points per game since Nov. 30, shooting 50% from the field and 43.1% from three. He's launching triples with impunity and running the floor with abandon, jumpstarting Houston's second units on the break and beyond the arc. McLemore has risen from a shaky rotational piece to a necessary cog with the Rockets. After a troublesome start, McLemore has found his groove in recent weeks.
"One thing we really worked on with [McLemore] is his confidence and keeping himself up," Rockets assistant coach John Lucas told RocketsMaven. "He's a classic example of a guy who doesn't make it the first couple of times, where every shot is the weight of the world. He's now progressing to where he knows he's not going to make all of them. Just keep shooting and move onto the next."
McLemore signed a two-year, partially-guaranteed contract with the Rockets in late July, attempting to rebuild his career after failing to evolve into a starting piece in his first six seasons. McLemore's production was middling in his first four years with the Kings, and a one-year stint in Memphis in 2017-18 didn't yield a career turnaround. He returned to the Kings in 2018-19, but his return lasted just 19 games. This season provided a need to hit the reset button, and McLemore has done just that after his career in Sacramento came to a close.
Houston was a natural landing spot for McLemore in free agency. The Rockets have a deep history of wringing the best out of wings in the Morey era ("you can thank James Harden for that," Lucas said) with incoming players given a simple directive: play solid defense, and let it fly. Trevor Ariza, Gerald Green and Danuel House thrived under the orders in recent years. McLemore is following in their footsteps.
McLemore's shot profile through his first 24 games is likely to have Morey salivating. 168 of McLemore's 196 shots this season have been from beyond the arc. 76% of his attempts come in the catch-and-shoot variety. McLemore has been aggressive attacking the tin on the rare occasion he passes up a three, taking 19 of his 20 two-point shots within 5 feet of the rim.
McLemore has excised mid-range shots completely, and his Green-esque trigger from beyond the arc is vital when the Rockets increase their pace. He's evolved into a strong complimentary piece alongside Harden in the half court as well as an imposing transition weapon alongside Russell Westbrook. McLemore can be a swiss-army knife for Houston's attack, able to be deployed in a variety of roles alongside the Rockets' pair of superstars.
"Mentally, I prepare myself for any situation I'm in," McLemore said. "Just doing the things I do. Running the floor, making shots and guarding. I try to make [Harden and Westbrook's] jobs easier. ...With our spacing I just got to make plays."
Houston is blitzing teams when McLemore is on the floor through 24 games. McLemore's plus-13.4 net rating trails only Isaiah Hartenstein, and the Rockets are scoring 120 points per 100 possessions with McLemore on the floor. The numbers are gaudier when McLemore shares the court with Harden. The duo sports a 123.8 offensive rating when McLemore plays with Harden, the league's No. 1 mark among the 183 pairs to play at least 400 minutes together. McLemore and Harden are the NBA's top duo by over four points per 100 possessions, lapping the field in net rating. Harden is the rising tide for all boats in Houston's offense. McLemore is the greatest beneficiary.
McLemore thrives as a spot-up shooter, though he's shown flashes of his expanded game in recent weeks. McLemore has been an effective trap-breaker in lineups next to Harden. He'll catch the ball above the foul line and make teams pay in 4-on-3 situations, rolling downhill to find a shot at the rim or an open shooter on the wing. McLemore isn't the most creative playmaker in space, though his decisiveness is quite effective. McLemore is the type of athlete to draw extra attention near the lane. His teammates have benefitted from his aggression.
"I'm an NBA basketball player. I got drafted for a reason," McLemore said. "I've got an all-around game, I can put it on the deck, make plays. Our offense has a lot of guys like that."
Landing in the lottery may have placed undue expectations upon McLemore in 2013. He arrived in Sacramento from the Big 12 as a raw (though intriguing) prospect, athletically gifted yet deeply inexperienced. The Kings' near-constant dysfunction didn't help, and McLemore spent his first half-decade in the NBA spinning his wheels in frustration. The losing wore on him.
The Rockets have provided a second chance. McLemore's role is defined. His leash is long. Head coach Mike D'Antoni won't pull him after a missed triple, while Harden and Westbrook are often looking for McLemore in transition. After wandering the NBA desert for six years, McLemore has landed in his professional home.
"[McLemore] has been a great fit," Lucas said. "We've worked with him to get to where he is now, and he's really a nice player for us."