Find out how No. 16 expresses himself through music, and get an inside look at the rookie’s background and Kings Summer League experience.
“Didn’t want this, I worked for this,
I was in the gym – I was focused.”
Kings draftee Ben McLemore leans back in his seat on the team bus – a red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap atop his head and a pair of white Beats by Dre headphones draped around his neck – when the soft-spoken rookie is challenged by a Summer League teammate.
“You don’t have bars!” says Drew Gordon regarding No. 16’s rapping ability.
“You guys heard my bars though!” the Kansas product shouts back with a wide smile, eager to prove his talent extends beyond the confines of the basketball court. “I was spitting a little earlier.”
As a freshman at the University of Kansas, McLemore discovered his passion for hip-hop while reflecting on how far he’d come – overcoming numerous life challenges to put himself in position to be a first-round NBA Draft pick.
“I’m a laid-back dude, so I’d just chill in my room, and one day I just got my phone, went in my notes, started listening to that Future beat and started writing to it,” he says, crediting Lil’ Wayne as his favorite rapper. “I just (thought) about, (as) the song goes, growing up, I didn’t want this – I worked for it. I worked to get where I was.”
Of the eight tracks he’s penned to date, McLemore says he’s most proud of a two-minute ode that paints a vivid, personal picture of his difficult upbringing and the pivotal role basketball has played in his life.
“It’s the main (song) I really put my time and focus on,” he says. “I really expressed myself on just how I grew up, how I really took basketball to another level.”
For the 20-year-old, music has served as a vessel of expression, allowing him to share his experiences, goals and emotions over booming hip-hop beats that catch his ear.
“When I have free time, I just sit there and just start writing,” he says. “I usually look at the artist – the instrumental song I’m about to use – and just look at the lyrics and see how I can put my life and basketball into the lyrics. That’s how I create my songs.
“All my raps are basically about me growing up and playing basketball … my life.”
Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood, the Wellston, Mo. native would at times go days without food, warm water or electricity, while as many as a dozen relatives would take shelter inside his 600-square-foot home on a given night. In addition to his mother working multiple jobs, McLemore and his brothers would perform various chores throughout the neighborhood – moving trashcans, cutting grass or cleaning cars – to collect enough money to afford a quick meal.
“It was a hard feeling – not knowing how we’re going to put food on the table,” he says. “(I’m thankful for) just the people around me – my family members.”
In May 2008, McLemore’s older brother – Keith Scott – was charged with three felonies and sentenced to 15 years in prison, leaving the future draftee, then 15, as the man of the house.
All the while, basketball not only served as an outlet for the young phenom, but also as a conceivable way to one day provide for his family and help rebuild his dilapidated neighborhood.
The rising guard worked tirelessly on his game at a local court, “The Spectrum” – where his father long ago made a name for himself as a playground legend – and inside the Wellston High gym, where his uncle, Daniel Reid, starred decades prior.
“In high school, I looked up to guys like Paul Pierce and LeBron (James), but at the same time, I just had great people around me, and my family members all played basketball,” he says. “So I felt it was the thing that kept me going – I just picked up the ball and kept playing, (improved) and grew taller. I just stayed in the gym, working hard each and every day to get where I am.”
After twice transferring high schools when Wellston High lost its accreditation – ultimately finishing his senior season at Christian Life Center in Humble, Texas – McLemore was deemed ineligible to play his first year at Kansas as a partial academic qualifier.
Focusing on his education, McLemore earned a grade point average of slightly below 3.0 in his first semester, before making the Big 12 Honor Roll the following semester with a GPA exceeding 3.0.
“I think it wound up being a blessing to sit out – I took it and told myself I’m not going to let that stop me,” he says. “Second semester came around, and I was able to practice, learn from the seniors. I was in the gym working on my game and got better.”
When he finally stepped on the court as a Jayhawk, the redshirt freshman quickly emerged as the team’s top offensive option, leading Kansas and finishing third in the Big 12 in scoring (15.9 points per game), and ranking among the conference leaders in free-throw accuracy (87 percent – first), three-point percentage (42 percent – second) and field-goal percentage (49.5 percent – eighth).
The explosive guard tallied 11 games with 20 or more points – setting a Kansas freshman single-game scoring record with 36 points on March 2 against West Virginia – en route to earning Second-Team All-America honors by the AP, NABC and USBWA.
“I watched like everybody else watched, and you could tell the separation he has from a regular college guy to an NBA guy,” says Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. “He’s a big-time athlete who can shoot the long-ball.”
After conquering numerous obstacles, McLemore achieved his lifelong dream when the Kings made him the seventh-overall selection in the 2013 Draft – to the delight of both the guard and Sacramento’s front office.
“It’s tremendous for the franchise,” says Kings General Manager Pete D’Alessandro. “To get a player like Ben at pick No. 7 was shocking and just thrilled all of us.”
Head Coach Michael Malone believes the Missouri native is only beginning to scratch the surface of his immeasurable upside.
“His potential is exciting,” says Malone. “He’s a sponge – he wants to learn, he wants to get better, he’s willing to work hard and he knows he is a work-in-progress. He’s not close to being the player he’s going to be down the road. That’s what excites me the most – his potential, his youth and just his attitude. He’s a very positive kid.”
“Been ballin’ since a young’n, y’all already know,
Stayed up in that gym, 24-seven, yo.”
After a quiet first half – in which he scored only four points on 2-of-9 from the field – McLemore displayed his entire offensive repertoire in the third quarter against the Atlanta Hawks in Sacramento’s Summer League finale.
In the opening minutes, No. 16 ran the floor and finished with a two-handed slam off a dish from fellow first-year teammate Ray McCallum, before launching a long three-pointer that found nothing but the bottom of the net. Moments later, he rose above the rim and threw down a thunderous slam over Atlanta’s Mike Scott, which lifted the crowd – and Kings center DeMarcus Cousins – out of its seat.
Before the buzzer sounded to end the period, the guard poured in 19 points in less than 10 minutes of court-time – connecting on all but one of his eight field goal attempts – and finished the contest with a game-high 27 points to go along with nine rebounds in a Kings victory.
“He’s a great kid and he’s working his butt off,” says Malone. “He showed you what he’s capable of – he took over the game. What I’ve tried to tell him is, ‘Don’t let the fact that if your jumper’s not going in (deter you) – don’t be a one-dimensional player. Find other ways to impact the game.’ He did that by rebounding the ball at a high level.”
Ever humble, McLemore takes his standout performance in stride when assessing his Summer League production, instead focusing on areas in which he must improve.
“It’s a great feeling to end Summer League like this, (but) I think everybody knows they need to work on their all-around game,” he says. “I know I need to get better.”
Just as he’d elevated above adversity in the past, the Kansas product recognizes and accepts criticism after a productive but inconsistent five-game stretch – during which he averaged a team-leading 15.8 points per outing, but uncharacteristically connected on 33.3 percent from the floor and committed 18 turnovers.
“I need to get back in the gym, shoot some more, work on my ball-handling,” he says. “(Improve) my all-around game, period.”
In addition to spending countless hours on-court over the coming months, with the grind of two-a-day practices and back-to-back-to-back games behind him, McLemore will have a chance to reflect on his first professional basketball playing experience.
“I was thinking about (writing a song) – I’ll probably do it,” he says. “I really haven’t had free time – I’ve been working, I’ve been moving, (I’ve had) interviews back-to-back, but that’s the life I chose.
“Summer League is over now – I had fun, enjoyed it, it was a good experience. Now it’s time to relax a little bit, but at the same time, keep (my) focus and a steady head.”
With an abundance of lyrical content and a tentative song title – “Summer Life” – already in mind, all the rookie needs is a beat.
- While McLemore says music is his only off-court hobby, the Kings rookie enjoys watching comedic TV shows, including “Family Guy,” in his spare time.
- As Kansas fans discovered last season, the athletic guard not only dazzles on the hardwood, but also has scintillating moves on the dance floor.
“When we played Ohio State and we beat them (on Dec. 22, 2012), I just came in the locker room – my teammates were waiting for me to celebrate and I just started doing this dance,” he recalls. “It just got famous.”