Ben McLemore: The NBA lottery pick who lost his way, and his road back

Rarely do the lowest, darkest moments in someone's professional and personal lives intersect.

On Nov. 4, 2018, Ben McLemore, then in his second stint with the Sacramento Kings, was receiving treatment in the locker room in Milwaukee in anticipation of playing that night. McLemore had been excited when the Kings reacquired him from the Memphis Grizzlies in July 2018.

"I was like, 'Wow!'" McLemore told ESPN last month. "Coming back to the team who drafted me? They believed in me from the jump -- a young kid from St. Louis. They are giving me the opportunity to show them why they drafted me in the first place."

But it quickly became clear McLemore was not in Sacramento's plans. Absorbing his contract had been a means of off-loading Garrett Temple for a prospect and a second-round pick. McLemore had logged only 24 total minutes so far that season.

Still, McLemore was gearing up to see the court in Milwaukee.

Dave Joerger, then the Kings coach, approached with bad news: Due to a last-minute switch, McLemore would be inactive.

McLemore did not have clothes that met the league dress code for inactive players. He would have to sit alone in the visiting locker room.

As McLemore digested that, his phone rang. It was his sister. She was crying. Something had happened to McLemore's younger brother, Kevin. McLemore hung up and called one of his cousins. "He's gone," the voice on the other end said. Kevin McLemore had died unexpectedly.

McLemore ran into the shower and turned the water on. He didn't know what else to do.

"I was just in the shower talking to myself," he said. "We were kinda like twins. We had a connection. I was almost trying to talk to him."

McLemore returned to Sacramento with the team before attending his brother's memorial service. He remained with the Kings, playing sporadically, until they waived him in early February.

He was mourning. His NBA career was in jeopardy. McLemore spent a few days with his wife and baby daughter before deciding to fight. "If I didn't have my support system, who knows if I would still be in the league," McLemore said.

"I locked myself in the gym," he said. "I told myself that if you love this game, you have to know you did everything you could. And I love this game dirty."

The next five months were filled with twists and false hopes until the Houston Rockets in July signed McLemore to a two-year, $4.4 million deal, with a $500,000 guarantee.

McLemore's full $2 million salary for this season locks in if he remains on Houston's roster beyond Thursday, though the more practical deadline is today at 5 p.m. -- the last moment Houston can waive McLemore before his contract guarantees. It appears very likely he sticks beyond that deadline, even though the Rockets are barely above the luxury tax line. (They could also keep him and trade him later.)

"I love Ben," Houston coach Mike D'Antoni told ESPN last month. "All he was lacking was confidence and an opportunity."

Injuries to Gerald Green and Eric Gordon opened minutes, and McLemore has been a fixture in Houston's rotation. Over one nine-game stretch starting Nov. 30, McLemore averaged 14 points on 39-of-85 shooting from deep. He punished teams who left him open to trap James Harden.

He has slumped a bit since, and Gordon's return has cut into his minutes. But playing next to two ball-dominant superstars in Harden and Russell Westbrook simplified the game for McLemore: Catch, shoot and defend better than he did over his first six seasons, when he was by his own admission a liability.

McLemore isn't nervous as his guarantee date approaches.

"I know my contract," he said. "But the non-guaranteed deal doesn't faze me. I grew up with nothing. Nothing was guaranteed."

Even if the unexpected happens, McLemore will keep battling. This season has revived his passion. Almost everyone McLemore has come into contact with over those wayward first six seasons will be rooting for him.

"I love him," Joerger said.

Sacramento didn't expect to have any chance at drafting McLemore with the seventh pick in 2013. The Kings didn't even bring him in for a pre-draft workout. But crazy stuff happened at the top of that draft -- starting with the Cleveland Cavaliers selecting Anthony Bennett No. 1 -- and McLemore fell.

Sacramento was an organization in transition. Vivek Ranadive finalized his purchase of the team a month before the draft. He hired Michael Malone as coach at the end of May. The Kings drafted McLemore, and they signed-and-traded away Tyreke Evans -- their lead ball handler.

"He was getting into a whole world of change and expectations, and he had no idea," said Chuck Hayes, who mentored McLemore during the 2013-14 season and now works in Houston's front office.

The Kings franchise belonged to DeMarcus Cousins, and Cousins' personality -- loud and brash -- made for a stark contrast with McLemore, then a soft-spoken 20-year-old.

"It was tough going for Ben early," Malone said.

McLemore started 55 games as a rookie. He peppered Hayes and John Salmons with questions. He liked that Malone prioritized player development -- that Malone let him play through mistakes.

McLemore was happy, though perhaps a little naive about how quickly things can change in the NBA and what it would take to thrive. After practices, McLemore worked on trick dunks; he participated in the dunk contest at All-Star Weekend in 2014.

"I was like, 'You're gonna need a whole lot more than [dunks], but they are very nice,'" Hayes said.

McLemore began his second season as a full-time starter. He was working out in the team's practice facility late on Dec. 14, 2014, when Malone called with startling news: The Kings, then 11-13, had just fired him.

McLemore owns a lot of his NBA struggle. "We had some personal deficiencies," said Hazem Al-Gibaly, McLemore's friend and business manager. But if there is a moment when outside factors overwhelmed McLemore, it was the sudden firing of Malone.

"I love you," Malone told him on the call, both remembered. "Keep working."

"I felt like crying right there," McLemore said.

The Kings quickly cycled through Tyrone Corbin and George Karl before hiring Joerger in May 2016.

Amid the chaos, McLemore felt the organization lost its focus on teaching.

"I'm big on someone being hands on with me," he said. "After those first two years, I felt there was a lack of player development."

Kings officials declined comment; tampering rules prohibit them from discussing another team's player. But they would not strongly contest this sentiment. The organization had lost faith in McLemore. They questioned his defense and his hands. Ownership pushed a win-now mentality.

"Now when he fell asleep on a backdoor cut, he'd get yanked," Al-Gibaly said.

McLemore's confidence dwindled.

"You start seeing, 'Oh, he's a bust,'" McLemore said. "And you start to think: Maybe I am a bust?"

When Sacramento acquired Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic, the writing was on the wall.

The Kings declined McLemore's qualifying offer in the summer of 2017. The Los Angeles Lakers expressed interest in free agency, but he chose Memphis; he knew that David Fizdale, then the Grizzlies' coach, emphasized player development.

McLemore broke a bone in his foot playing pickup that summer, effectively torpedoing his stint with Memphis before it started. The Grizzlies fired Fizdale in November 2017 and replaced him with J.B. Bickerstaff -- McLemore's sixth head coach in less than five seasons.

McLemore imagined alternate realities where a more stable franchise drafted him.

"I thought about it every day -- that maybe in those situations I could have been more successful," he said. "So much is about being in the right situation at the right time."

Two days after the Kings waived him last season, the Toronto Raptors and McLemore agreed on a 10-day contract. McLemore was driving to the airport in Sacramento for his flight to Toronto when Al-Gibaly called him. There had been a snag. The Raptors had traded so many players away in the Marc Gasol deal, they had to fill several roster spots with rest-of-season deals before they could sign a 10-day contract. McLemore went home.

No other deal came. He called Malone, his old coach, and asked what he had to work on to regain a foothold in the NBA.

A team from China flew in a scout to watch McLemore work out. The thought of leaving the NBA for at least a year crossed his mind. In early March, the Raptors called again, wondering if McLemore would work out for one of their scouts in Los Angeles.

His 3-point shot was on that day. "That was one of my best workouts ever," McLemore said. He punctuated it with two dunks, one on each basket, because he knew teams were wondering if he was still as bouncy as he had been.

Toronto had nothing hard to offer, but the workout buoyed McLemore. He would stay in the United States and get back in the NBA.

McLemore realized he had to work harder, and differently, than he had before.

"Last summer was big," McLemore said. "I had said that about other summers before, but this one was huge."

He worked with his trainer, Clint Parks, at Los Angeles-area high schools and at Kobe Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy.

As he walked into Mamba Academy one morning last spring, he ran into Bryant. "What are you doing here?" Bryant asked, shocked to learn McLemore was out of the league, both recalled. "Stay ready," Bryant told him. "Your time is gonna come."

"Just him saying that built my confidence," McLemore said.

When the Rockets called in July, McLemore and his camp saw the potential fit right away. He focused even more on catch-and-shoot 3s. Parks drilled him on sidestep dribbles, so when defenders sprinted to close out, McLemore could evade them while staying behind the arc. As he pushed McLemore, Parks thought often of McLemore's late brother. "Kevin was Ben's biggest fan," Parks said. "He would always tell me, 'Stay on his ass!'"

McLemore worked mostly on defense. "My downfall was not on the ball; it was being on the weak side," he said. "It was not being able to watch the ball and my man." He would hear opposing coaches urging players to cut backdoor against him.

He asked Al-Gibaly to send film of his mistakes. Parks showed him film of good defenders, including Patrick Beverley. "'Look how active Pat Bev's hands are,'" Parks urged. "'You're playing with two superstars now. You're gonna be asked to guard better players some nights.'"

In August, Al-Gibaly called Brady Morningstar, who preceded McLemore at the University of Kansas and was known for his defense. Morningstar is now a coach at Kansas City Kansas Community College. Al-Gibaly asked if Morningstar might put McLemore through two-a-days there, with the evening session focused only on defense.

"When I heard 'all defense,' in my head, I was like, 'I'm not doing this,'" McLemore said, chuckling.

Morningstar had McLemore practice closing out on shooters over and over. McLemore would have to sprint to an open shooter, contest his 3-pointer without flying by him, and cut off any drive before the ball reached the paint. If the shooter managed to launch, McLemore had to run across the court to box out a second player. Morningstar made McLemore keep going until he produced five consecutive stops and sealed them with rebounds.

"When we first started, I was blowing by him," Morningstar said. McLemore had a bad habit of opening his hips -- "opening the gate," Morningstar calls it -- and conceding a driving lane. "I was like, 'This guy is going to the Rockets? He can't play defense like this and think he's gonna keep his spot.' We were kicking his ass. It was like he had lost sight of who he was [as a younger player], because he was thinking, 'Score, score, score,' and 'Dunk, dunk, dunk.'"

McLemore stuck with it. His balance and footwork improved.

In Houston, the mistakes on defense have not been as frequent. McLemore leans on PJ Tucker for advice.

Early on, it was his shooting that wavered. McLemore hit just 31% of his 3s over October and November. He was getting worried. D'Antoni sensed it.

As McLemore boarded the team plane after an early-season game, he heard D'Antoni's voice.

"Hey, Ben, I'll give you 'til March to make a damn shot," D'Antoni said, according to both.

McLemore replied, "Well, Coach, I got a long time then."

"He has such a great shot," D'Antoni said. "He was probably leading the league in shots that were in and out."

"Hearing him say that gives you trust," McLemore said. "It gives you fuel. If I miss two in a row, that next one is going up."

McLemore is now at 35% from deep -- about league average. His ballhandling still is shaky. The playoffs will test his defense.

But he fought for his career, and right now, he has it.

"My mom used to say I looked like I had this black cloud over my head," McLemore said. "A mother is never wrong. I felt it. There were nights when it was just like, 'I don't want to play anymore.' Nothing could go right.

"Now she says, 'You look happy again. I see you smile again.'"

McLemore understands how fragile all of this is. But he has learned what he needs to work on to stick in the league.

"I'm still only 26," he said. "I have a lot of gas left in the tank."