LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Ben McLemore has played just 14 college games, yet the people who follow Kansas’ basketball team closely -- including this writer -- have already concluded two things:
McLemore is the best player to wear a KU uniform since Paul Pierce.
There’s no way the redshirt freshman will be in college after this season.
“He’s unbelievable,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He has the potential to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.”
Hoiberg would know -- and not just because he’s a former NBA player and front-office executive. It was Hoiberg’s Cyclones who watched helplessly as McLemore almost single-handedly dug the Jayhawks out of a six-point deficit before burying a 3-pointer with 1 second remaining to force overtime Wednesday at Allen Fieldhouse.
Kansas rode the momentum to a 97-89 victory in the Big 12 opener for both schools. But after that game, all anyone wanted to talk about was McLemore, who scored 33 points on 10-of-12 shooting. He made all six of his 3-point attempts and was 7-of-7 from the foul stripe.
“We had a lot of guys do some great things tonight,” said Jayhawks coach Bill Self, whose sixth-ranked squad improved to 13-1. “But Ben was the star.”
Coaches throw around that word loosely, but even Self will admit that he hasn’t had a talent of this caliber during his nine-year tenure in Lawrence.
Players such as Thomas Robinson, Marcus Morris and Wayne Simien were first-team All-Americans. Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur and Mario Chalmers led the 2007-08 squad to the NCAA title and, overall, Self has had 15 players drafted.
Still, no one ever predicted that any of them would be special at the next level.
No KU player under Self -- and, heck, none since Pierce in the late 1990s -- has ever been pegged as a “star.”
“I don’t see any reason why (McLemore) can’t be the top guy, the No. 1 guy,” an NBA scout told me Wednesday night. “The upper part of (this summer’s) draft is weak, but that’s not the only reason.
“He’s a freak athlete, he’s got a smooth stroke and he handles (the ball) pretty well. And I love his temperament. He’s the best player I’ve seen at Kansas in a long, long time.”
It was easy to sing McLemore’s praises after Wednesday’s game. Pierce scored 31 points in his final appearance at Allen Fieldhouse in 1998. And Nick Collison had 24 points and 23 rebounds as a senior in 2003.
But McLemore’s effort Wednesday rivaled both of those performances.
A 6-foot-5 wing, McLemore scored 15 points in the last 7 minutes, 55 seconds of regulation to help force overtime. Kansas trailed 79-76 after Iowa State guard Korie Lucious swished a pair of foul shots with 8 seconds remaining. But KU raced down the court and ran the same play it used in the 2008 NCAA title game, when Chalmers hit a last-second 3 to force overtime against Memphis.
This time the play featured an extra handoff, but the result was the same after McLemore broke free thanks to a screen from Travis Releford. He then caught a perfect pass from Elijah Johnson and buried a 3-pointer off the backboard.
“I knew Ben had the hot hand and his man fell asleep,” Johnson said. “Who better to go to? I think that was the best person in that situation. If I would’ve made that shot it wouldn’t have been the same as Ben making it. He deserved that shot.”
McLemore said his teammates gave him a hard time about making the shot off the backboard.
“I actually kind of called ‘bank,’” McLemore said. “The way it left my hand, I knew it was going to hit the backboard. It was a good release. It went in. I’m so glad.”
McLemore then opened overtime with a 3-pointer on KU’s first possession, and the rout was on from there. Hoiberg -- whose team connected on 14 shots from beyond the arc Wednesday -- couldn’t say enough nice things about McLemore in his postgame news conference.
“He’s great right now,” Hoiberg said, “and he’s got a great upside just because of his athleticism. He’s got a great stroke, he’s got great elevation on his shot and he seems like a wonderful kid.”
A St. Louis native, McLemore redshirted last season after the NCAA questioned his transcripts following a prep career in which he attended three high schools in four years. He was deemed a partial qualifier, meaning he could practice with the Jayhawks but not compete in games.
McLemore’s teammates said he used his redshirt year to his advantage.
“He’s been willing to learn his whole life,” Johnson said. “He never thinks he knows too much. Even when he knows something, he doesn’t come off with that kind of attitude. When you look at him, you feel like he’s trying his hardest to do everything right.”
McLemore’s college career might not last very long, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t going to do everything he can to enjoy his KU experience. Wearing flip-flops, he spent nearly an hour signing autographs and taking pictures with fans after Wednesday’s game. Talk to him long enough, and it’s clear his thoughts are focused not on the NBA, but on helping the Jayhawks win their ninth consecutive Big 12 title.
“I didn’t start this road,” he said, “but I’d like to continue it.”
McLemore and the Jayhawks certainly took a big step in that quest Monday against an underrated Iowa State squad that always plays well at Allen Fieldhouse, where Kansas has won 100 of its past 101 games. A loss would’ve been the first for KU in its conference opener since 1991.
Instead, the Jayhawks headed back to their apartments celebrating a victory thanks to the school’s most talented player in two decades.
“He’s a little kid at heart,” Johnson said of McLemore. “At the same time, he’s the coolest person in the world. He’s one of those people you could never get mad at. And if he gets mad at you, it hurts you.
“Anything he’s getting right now, I really, truly, deep down in my heart feel like he deserves.”