By Alissa Bauer
Big 12 Campus Correspondent
Watch No. 23.
Aside from pull-up jumpers, long threes and lockdown defense while he's on the court, Ben McLemore also spends a lot of time smiling.
"I'm just happy," McLemore explained. "Everything is over. Sitting out last year was hard, but now it's over. I'm happy just to be here and play for this program."
The redshirt freshman from St. Louis, Mo., was dealt a tough hand last year when the NCAA ruled him and Kansas teammate Jamari Traylor partial qualifiers, rendering the pair ineligible for the 2011-12 season. The duo was relegated to individual weight room and conditioning work, and was finally allowed to practice with the team last semester before receiving full clearance this season.
What's notable isn't the over-told story or even the dominant year that he's had since, but the positivity he drew from it. A five-star recruit, McLemore repeatedly handled questions about his situation last year, but one remark stood out when the 6-foot-5 guard talked about the unfortunate mandate from the NCAA - his belief that things happen for a reason.
A year later, McLemore was exactly right.
"It was a blessing to sit out last year to improve and get better - because that's what happened," McLemore said. "Now, I'm still learning as this season goes on but I feel like I'm getting better each and every day, so it was a blessing to sit out last year."
Although he admits that he still would've been in the scoring mix had he been allowed to play a year ago, McLemore also seemed certain that his output might not have totaled his team-leading 15.8 points per game that he's currently averaging. His scoring numbers are the best among Big 12 freshmen and trail only Baylor's Pierre Jackson for tops in the league.
Yet, the fact that he was denied the chance to make a similar impact last season isn't something McLemore is willing to dwell on.
"I never took it in defense that the ruling was the wrong thing to do against me," McLemore said. "I just took it and had a positive attitude about it. I used that to work harder and get better every day. I'm here playing basketball for Kansas. I took that year to improve my game and I'm still improving now. I'm just glad to be here."
Hence, the smiling.
Even in brief conversations with the young guard, he rarely misses the chance to mention that he plays for one of the national powerhouses in college basketball - and is grateful for it. Since being given full clearance by the NCAA, McLemore has started all 12 games for Kansas, but still finds himself in awe.
"The first game, it was unbelievable," McLemore recalled from KU's season opener against Southeast Missouri State. "To hear my name in the starting lineup, I was thinking to myself at the time 'I'm starting for the University of Kansas, one of the best programs in the nation.' There was so much stuff going through my mind. I was nervous, but I went out there and just played. It was great."
It has been nothing short of great ever since. After falling short of a double-double by a single point in his collegiate debut, McLemore scored in double-digits in 10-consecutive games, including a team-best 22 points to power Kansas past then-No. 7 Ohio State, one of four 20-point games already in his young career.
Nevertheless, his starting role hasn't changed his outlook on the importance of practice. After making the grades in the classroom and steering clear of the practice court in the fall semester of 2011, McLemore was finally cleared to practice with his teammates last spring. He remembers the first practice being at the Sprint Center prior to the Jayhawks' meeting with Davidson in the annual Kansas City game.
Still not able to play in games at that time, McLemore made the most of each practice, treating them with as much intensity as the contests he wasn't allowed to play in. Becoming a regular starter, however, has done little to dampen his practice spirit.
"I'm definitely looking at practice the same way," McLemore said. "Last year, I was looking at it like every practice was a game for me so I'm going out there and giving it my all. This year, I'm still giving it my all. I still go out there aggressively and playing hard every day in practice. I still choose to treat practice like a game...because what you do in practice you might do in a game."
That sentiment and the grin that followed marked the increasing maturity level that coaches and teammates like to see. McLemore had no shortage of veteran guards to learn from during his season on the sidelines as he cites Tyshawn Taylor as one he looked up to a year ago. Now that he's on the court, he's still grateful for direction from his backcourt, including senior guards Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford as well as fellow seniors Kevin Young and Jeff Withey. He credits each of them for helping his rapidly-increasing maturity level.
Away from the court, the rookie star also had a solid set of mentors. One of five siblings, McLemore is very close with his brothers, sisters and mom, Sonya Reid. Of course it's easy to be excited about the team's leading scorer that starts every game, but it was the support and that they stood by him as he sat in street clothes on the bench a year ago that was truly special to McLemore.
"I would say it was my mom and my sisters," McLemore said on who he looked to for support last season. "My older brother is one of my biggest fans, too. It meant a lot to me that they were there for me even when I wasn't playing. They saw me through a tough situation. They still came to the games last year, still came just to watch Kansas play. Now that I'm playing, they support me even more. I'm just happy to be out here playing the game I love."
He also had the support of someone else. Someone who knew better than anyone what he was going through, teammate Jamari Traylor. McLemore brings up another blessing in disguise behind the NCAA ruling when he discussed his friendship with Traylor. The two became very close during the trying year and are roommates now.
"It would've been so much harder if I was the only one out there not playing, dealing with that alone," McLemore said. "Since it was me and Jamari, we helped each other get through it. We would tell each other 'you gotta stay in the gym, work hard every day, get our grades right'; little things like that and we did. Now we're out here together playing for Kansas. We're both happy."
Although he keeps repeating it, there is no need to. McLemore's happiness is easy to see. With a top-five ranking on the CBSSports.com and ESPN.com NBA prospect leaderboards, neither of which he claims to check, and a solidified spot in the Kansas starting lineup, that smile doesn't appear to be fading.
"I keep a smile on my face and just have fun," McLemore confessed. "When you're having fun out there, everything is going right. Your energy is better, your teammates are with you and the game just goes better."
He must be on to something. Those smiles have the rookie guard ready to enter conference play as the highest scoring freshman in the league. Sure, he might've been there without an extra year of practice, but McLemore knows these things happen for a reason. Nothing like a rookie teaching us all the benefits of a positive attitude.