Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard Ben McLemore has sneakily had a nice season. After sitting patiently on the Blazers’ bench through October and November, he’s become an offensive threat and, possibly, a semi-valuable trade chip.
Over the past month, the 28-year-old has solidified his role as a reliable source of bench points as this roster continues to surprise NBA pundits, winning against the odds.
Let’s go back a bit
McLemore was taken out of Kansas with the seventh pick in 2013 — three selections ahead of CJ McCollum — as an out-and-out shooter. Unfortunately, he was selected by the Sacramento Kings who haven’t really shone when it comes developing young talent in the modern era.
After bouncing around the league, including stops with the Memphis Grizzlies, a return to the Kings, Houston Rockets and last season with the Los Angeles Lakers, he signed a veteran minimum contract with the Blazers with very little fanfare.
He’s been able to remain in the league as a shooter while never really making his mark, surviving from season to season.
His latest NBA chapter started in Mexico, of all places, about seven months ago when McLemore bumped into Damian Lillard in Cabo San Lucas. Lillard reportedly sold McLemore on Portland, suggesting he come and help reinforce the team’s loaded guard rotation.
It must have been a pretty convincing discussion because McLemore was announced as a Blazer on the second day of the August free agency period.
But of Portland’s three early vet minimum signings — including Cody Zeller and Tony Snell — it seemed McLemore’s arrival went deepest under the radar.
Why? I might hear you ask. Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, the Blazers aren’t short on undersized three-point-shooting guards who don’t play much defense. Regardless of how smooth a shot and how good his percentages were, it was going to be tough for the former Jayhawk to ply his trade in minutes that mattered.
So, if he was going to step on the court, McLemore was going to have to beat out Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum, Anfernee Simons and Norman Powell. A pretty steep task.
True to expectation, the 28-year-old saw nothing but junk-time minutes until the Blazers hosted the lowly Detroit Pistons on November 30. In one of the team’s few convincing wins in late November and December, McLemore produced 17 points on 44 percent three-point shooting in 17 minutes.
By mid December, McCollum was recuperating from a collapsed lung, Lillard was feeling the full impact of his abdomen issue, and the team needed a proven veteran with a reliable shot to change some fortunes.
Enter McLemore, notching up consecutive double-digit games against the Golden State Warriors on December 8 and Minnesota Timberwolves on December 12. Coach Chauncey Billups may have then realized he had another weapon off the bench.
On December 17, McLemore shone in the first of two 28-point performances in two weeks, shooting 8 of 13, 61 percent, from three at home against the Charlotte Hornets.
The COVID Omicron variant hit Portland’s roster a couple of days before Christmas, sidelining more than half the squad. The next few games were pretty ugly but it allowed McLemore to cement himself as a member of the rotation. Throughout January he solidified himself as a staple, a veteran presence and, of course, a headache for opposing perimeter defenders.
In fact, since January 10, McLemore has averaged 12.2 points, hitting 37 of 83 three pointers, 44 percent. He’s leading the team in three point percentage and currently sits 10th league-wide with 42 percent.
From the outside, McLemore appears to have never let his initial bench burial impact his play or his mild-mannered demeanor. He could have easily decided to mope, dissatisfied and frustrated with his minimal role. Instead, he flourished.
So what now? The Blazers are stuck between punting on the season and making a late season play-in push. With Nassir Little going down for an extended period, they may be leaning towards the former, but we wait with bated breath for a clear indication.
If Interim General Manager Joe Cronin does finally decide to play for the pick, he’ll likely part with some expiring contracts and veteran players still attractive to other teams still in the hunt for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
McLemore’s almost $2.4 minimum contract is anything but prohibitive and could be used to sweeten a deal involving other players.
Alternatively, Portland could be playing the long game. Looking beyond this season, the lottery and its next campaign when hopefully a fit Damian Lillard attempts to lead the Blazers into contention with a re-tooled roster.
Reliable long-range shooting off the bench is critical for any contending team. If he’s not dealt at the deadline and likes the city and situation, McLemore might decide to stay in Oregon next season as the team tries to make a real push up the standings.
Ben McLemore deserves another NBA contract. Yes, he was originally a lottery pick who didn’t reach initial expectations, but he’s proved he’s a viable NBA player.
Despite his shooting ability, circumstance made McLemore an afterthought initially. But it really does say something about his maturity and veteran will that he patiently waited for his chance and made the most it when it came along.
Whether he’s with the team after the February 10 trade deadline — the day before his 29th birthday — or beyond this season, is another question. Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised either way, especially with the front office yet to make a pre-deadline player-related move.
All I’ll say is that if the Blazers are able to surround Damian Lillard with a competent, contending team next season, you could do a whole lot worse than Ben McLemore coming off the bench hitting threes at a regular clip.