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Sacramento Kings Start Rookie SG Ben McLemore: What It Means

How Are the Kings Balancing the Need to Show Progress with Long-Term Planning?

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | For better or worse, the Sacramento Kings decided to start rookie shooting guard Ben McLemore on Wednesday night in favor of struggling veteran Marcus Thornton.

The new lineup worked against Brooklyn, as the Kings actively set more picks and got good shots in a 107-86 win, though McLemore struggled. Greivis Vasquez also had his best game in Sacramento, finishing with early-highs of 17 points and 12 assists.

Although managing the early development of a high first-round pick always is important, there are several factors that magnify and complicate the decision to start McLemore.

A new ownership group, front office and coaching staff need to make a good first impression. The Kings must improve on a disastrous recent history developing young talent. And, let's face it, any rebuilding franchise not located in a destination city needs to consider its potential place in what appears to be a rich 2014 draft.

All of those priorities have a stake in McLemore's success, both immediately and in the intermediate term.

On The Court

Let's take a look at the basketball reasons to start McLemore.

The Kings' isolation-ball, identity-starved offense of recent seasons is starting to congeal, but the Kings don't have the personnel right now to maximize DeMarcus Cousins and Vasquez, Sacramento's two most important starters on that side of the equation.

Coach Mike Malone clearly wants to run the offense through Cousins, who has been given more freedom, evidenced by his 19 shot attempts per game entering Wednesday.

Vasquez has been nowhere near the player he was in 2012-13, with major declines in assists, points, rebounds and minutes. Part of his success last season with New Orleans can be credited to the presence of Ryan Anderson, a stretch 4 with a smooth jumper.

The Kings have tried to emulate that by starting Patrick Patterson, who emerged as an outside threat a year ago, making 38.6 percent of his attempts.

Patterson and Marcus Thornton, who sunk 248 3s the last two seasons, were supposed to provide Cousins room to operate underneath and take advantage of the first true facilitator at point guard in years. Instead, Patterson and Thornton entered the week a combined 12 of 47 from beyond the arc, or 25.5 percent.

The Kings also are a plodding team, tied with Toronto for last in the NBA with just 93.8 possessions per game entering Wednesday.

McLemore did shoot 42 percent from 3 in one season at Kansas, but, theoretically, isn't as strong of a shooter from the NBA distance as Thornton at this point (McLemore put up two ugly 3s in the first quarter, including an air-ball).

But McLemore is much more athletic, which should allow the Kings more opportunities in transition and help improve Sacramento's defense, ranked last in the NBA in efficiency and a huge priority for Malone.

Also, with Thornton on the bench, the Kings have a pair of backups that can score with any reserves in the league (Isiah Thomas led the NBA in scoring off the bench with 18.0 points per game entering Wednesday).

Thornton replaced McLemore at the 3:17 mark of the first quarter, so it's more of a minor change as both players appear set to get minutes at shooting guard.

Talent Development

Even your crochet-loving grandmother knows the formula by now: If you're not a championship contender, bottom out and rebuild with high draft picks.

Sacramento has selected in the top 10 every year since 2009, but it has failed to develop that talent.

Let's take a look at the Kings' first-round picks, which puts more pressure on the Kings to develop McLemore:

Tyreke Evans (2009): No longer with the team. Had a promising rookie season, but never developed from there, yanked between positions, offenses and coaches before leaving in free agency this offseason.

DeMarcus Cousins (2010): Other than Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol, Cousins has the physical talent to be a premier center in the NBA and has played well enough to earn a max contract. But Cousins has drifted, replacing Rasheed Wallace as the NBA's technical-foul magnet, has feuded with coaches and teammates, and generally is viewed as not fulfilling his potential.

Jimmer Fredette (2011): The Kings traded the No. 7 overall pick and Beno Udrich for John Salmons and Fredette, who is such a sinkhole on defense that the Kings have stashed him at the end of the bench and declined to pick up his option for next year.

Thomas Robinson (2012): Sacramento got rid of Robinson before his rookie season ended in an apparent salary dump.

The 2014 Draft

Even if McLemore develops, Cousins stays the course and Thomas continues to be one of the best sixth men in the league, the Kings are desperate for talent at forward and could use an upgrade at point guard before they'll make the playoffs.

GMs and fans are salivating over the 2014 draft talent, including Julius Randle (PF), Dante Exum (PG), Jabari Parker (SF) Marcus Smart (PG) and Aaron Gordon (SF/PF).

No matter how bad Sacramento is, as long as Cousins is healthy and not suspended, it's hard to envision this team vying for the worst record in the NBA. But a 1-5 start slots the Kings lower on the totem pole than many expected.

With teams like Phoenix and Minnesota off to good starts and New Orleans improving its talent, it's not insane to think the Kings could slide to next-to-last in the Western Conference, which won't have many awful teams this year (sorry, Utah).

Attempting to shake things up this early, even if it works, may not be the best thing for the Kings this season.

The Kings could keep McLemore in the incubator, bring him along slowly and play to add one of the top 5 picks in next year's draft, but, instead, they've chosen to try to make the team better this year, bring the rookie along and make a good impression with fans.

Kings fans have proved a hearty bunch, but after everything the team has subjected them to in the last eight years, the owners, GM and coach need to prove to fans they care about winning and that a 1-5 start is not acceptable.

The Kings got off to a good start Wednesday with the new starting lineup (including Jason Thompson in place of Patterson), building a 12-point halftime lead and cruising late in the game. The rookie took some ill-advised shots and finished 1 of 8 in just 14 minutes, but Thornton responded with 24 points.

Did the new lineup give the team a kick in the pants? Were the struggling Nets, flying across the country, a good but temporary medicine for a team in need?

It will take months or longer to determine whether the Kings made the right decision, but, for better or worse, the Ben McLemore era has begun in earnest in Sacramento.

Christopher has worked or interned for three NFL teams and currently is the FBS Senior Editor for Football.com, but he's always secretly wished to cover the NBA. He's followed the Kings since the early Chris Webber days.

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