LAWRENCE, Kan. — Lassie in the classroom, Cujo on the court. Is that too much to ask?
“Nice kids are great, but we definitely need that aggressiveness, that mindset,” said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose No. 7 Jayhawks lift the lid on 2012-13 on Tuesday in an exhibition tussle with Emporia State. “We don’t need blenders. We need guys to take charge.”
The Lassie part, Ben McLemore has down. It’s the Cujo bit that’s the great unknown right now, one of the biggest “X” factors for a Kansas bunch earmarked to win a ninth consecutive Big 12 title.
“I really want to bring a lot of energy to the team and to my players, just bring my energy and my effort,” said the highly-touted 6-foot-5 St. Louis native, who’ll make his competitive debut at Allen Fieldhouse after redshirting last season as a partial academic qualifier. “Coach wanted us to just bring a lot of energy and effort to the team.”
Energy and effort, McLemore has plenty of, right along with all the other tools in the kit: Quicks. Hops. Length. Range.
Scout.com tabbed the athletic wingman as the No. 13 shooting guard prospect in the Class of 2011. Comparisons to former Jayhawk great Brandon Rush have run rampant. When the NCAA forced McLemore to sit out last season, the legend — witnessed mostly behind closed doors — grew larger with each passing week. Self, a straight-shooter by trade, only added to the fire this past summer when he said that McLemore had the raw tools to become the best defender in the program’s history.
“He’s just got to learn how to plug himself in the game and be aggressive at all times,” Self said a few weeks ago. “But just (as an) athlete, shooting, length slide, rebounding … he can do about as many things as we have had here. He reminds me a lot of Brandon in that regard. But we struggled with Brandon being aggressive, if you guys remember. So that is one thing that Ben is going to have to be good at.”
“(McLemore has) got the most upside of any (guard) on the team right now,” former KU guard Tyshawn Taylor told SiriusXM Radio last February. “He’s young, is long and is the best athlete in terms of getting off the floor.”
Word on Naismith Drive is that the battles between the 6-3 Taylor, now with the Brooklyn Nets, and taller McLemore in practice were epic, and that the younger of the two won more rounds than the loquacious point man would prefer to admit.
“Tyshawn loved it,” Self said, “because he would actually take it personally if Ben made him look bad.”
To this, McLemore just smiles.
“It was fun guarding Tyshawn, because he was a great point guard,” McLemore said. “Me and him had a good bond with each other … on and off the court. … Guarding Tyshawn is going to help me make that move to the next level and get me better, get me ready for what’s going to be happening for me when I get ready to play.”
McLemore seems ready now. He raised a few eyebrows after he re-tweaked a nagging groin problem in August and wound up playing just two of the four contests on Kansas’ summer European junket. Still, it wasn’t all for naught: The redshirt freshman recalls senior Elijah Johnson offering a nugget of good advice while the two were overseas.
“He was saying, ‘Don’t even think about trying to score,’ and stuff like that,” McLemore said. “‘The main thing you should think about is just playing defense. Just play defense. Once you play defense, everything else is just going to fall into (place), and the offense is going to come to you.’ Stuff like that. That’s what you’ve got to do. Just play defense, and then everything else is going to come to you.”
Not that anyone could blame McLemore for being nervous. He spent a year in the shadows, hitting the books hard (reportedly posting a 3.2 GPA over 36 academic hours), hitching rides to Jayhawk games with student managers, watching a storybook season unfold and giving Taylor fresh hell during scrimmages.
“I mean, he’s a great player, so I’m going to give him a lot of credit,” McLemore said of Taylor.
How much, though? How often did Taylor get the upper hand?
“I’m going to say 70-30,” McLemore said. “Thirty percent of the time, I probably just, you know, frustrated him a little bit.”
McLemore grins again, a Cujo smile this time. Every dog has its day … and with McLemore, it seems the best days are yet to come.