How Austin Rivers and Ben McLemore beat labels to get where they are
In a few months, the NBA will hold a closed-door event with top personnel for select NBA teams and very few media members present. These select teams aren't special for what they achieved in the prior season, but for what they didn't achieve - making the NBA playoffs. They've all gathered to watch ping pong balls spin in a lottery machine designed to create a probability based order, based on team winning percentages. Next month, the teams will use this order to select players coming out of college. You may have guessed it by now, but this is the NBA lottery.
The televised version of the lottery has become compelling television for the NBA, but it has real stakes. It's the professional sports version of a government bailout as the players selected a month later are expected to turn the fortunes of their franchise around in a meaningful way. The players that prove to be real difference makers receive significant compensation in their second contracts and effectively lock-in a noteworthy career. This happens a higher percentage of the time with lottery picks.
"Everything is focused on you because people want to see if you're a bust or a success," said Rockets assistant coach and former player John Lucas. "And then now, it's what your team does."
Lucas, a former number one overall pick himself, is no stranger to this process and the scrutiny that can come with it. As Lucas said, not all lottery picks are successful in turning their franchises around. It's a tale as old as time, but there are players in every lottery that get bounced around the league before slipping through the cracks. These players are given one of the NBA's most dreaded labels - "bust".
"It's in the back of your mind," said Lucas of being labeled a bust. "It depends upon how much you work. And then what you don't realize is how good guys who don't have the name recognition [in the draft] are. They're very good players too. They just weren't drafted high. So, the level of competition is high and you have to work every year to continue to keep getting better."
Even for the most confident players, it's only natural to have that fear in the back of your head; the fear of failure. Though, it's important to note that these players are drafted at the ripe age of nineteen - seldom do they come out of the draft polished. Few players know that better than Rockets guard Austin Rivers.
"People labeled me [a bust]," said Rivers. "Now they look stupid, eight years later. That's what I was labeled as for sure. I didn't come out and have that immediate impact like everybody thought I should have."
Rivers was drafted to a really bad New Orleans team in 2012 alongside star prospect Anthony Davis. After being a highly sought after guard prospect from Duke, Rivers averaged 6.2 points, 2.1 assists, and 1.8 rebounds on 43.1% true shooting in his rookie year. It was an uninspiring start to his career and while he got slightly better the next year, expectations of him had been set so sky-high, that it became acceptable to give him that dreaded label.
"It's one of those things where you want to go and make an impact right away," said Rivers. "Back in our years, me and AD weren't able to do that. Although he did years later, after I had already left. He blossomed and turned into the superstar he is today."
The Pelicans were patient at first and even picked up the option for the third year of Rivers' deal. However, soon enough, they grew impatient and declined his fourth year and Rivers proceeded to be traded to the Los Angeles Clippers two months later. Rivers' wasn't deaf to the nepotism jokes made at his expense (Doc Rivers, his father, coached the Clippers), nor the "bust" labels hurled at him. However, he never let it affect his determination to carve out a role for himself.
"You know the key to anything is to go out there and do what you do," said Rivers. "Don't worry about all this extra noise and outside pressure. At the end of the day, I had never felt pressure. Even playing for my dad, which was a lot, I never felt pressure. At the end of the day, nobody's expectations were higher than my own."
This situation ended up being a blessing in disguise for Rivers. His scoring average and three-point percentage would increase every year he was with the Clippers and he showed some defensive chops that many didn't know he had coming out of Duke. As a result, his playing time also increased year after year. Rivers had made himself a proven NBA player and a real contributor for a Western Conference title contender. His place in the league could no longer be questioned.
7.1 points / 30.9% from three-point range / 19.3 minutes
8.9 points / 33.5% from three-point range / 21.9 minutes
12.0 points / 37.1% from three-point range / 27.8 minutes
15.1 points / 37.8% from three-point range / 33.7 minutes
Rivers was traded to the Washington Wizards in 2018 where he would play 31 games before getting traded again, but this time bought out by the Phoenix Suns. He would soon sign with the Rockets where he would once again become an important contributor to a Western Conference title contender. This is why, almost as much as the physical ability, becoming an NBA player requires such a high degree of mental fortitude and self-confidence.
"You can't let go of that confidence because everyone else is going to let go for you," said Rivers. "Especially if you don't play well at first, everybody's going to count you out. You don't need to count yourself out. You'll have enough people doing that."
If anybody can relate to that, it's Rockets' swingman Ben McLemore. A simple "McLemore bust" Twitter search will yield you pages and pages of NBA fans that had given up on the young prospect, many by the year 2015.
McLemore was the 7th overall draft pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, selected by the Sacramento Kings. With the athleticism, length, and shooting ability that McLemore possessed, he was considered to be a really strong prospect coming out of Kansas. In the beginning, Sacramento was actually a nice situation for McLemore. He had grown close to head coach Michael Malone, they had ball handlers in-place with Isaiah Thomas and Rudy Gay, the center piece was obviously DeMarcus Cousins, and all McLemore had to do was fill in the gaps by running out in transition and being prepared to shoot.
"Talking with Michael Malone gave me an idea and a purpose of what my role is going to be on that team," said McLemore. "Obviously putting me in positions where I can be great at what I do best and that's shoot the ball and be athletic running in transition."
McLemore really started to get into a rhythm in his second year with the Kings, averaging nearly 12 points per game on 41.2% shooting from beyond the arc in the first 24 games and the team was approaching a .500 record. And then, the Kings inexplicably fired Malone.
"I thought I fit the system pretty good in the beginning," said McLemore. "Things happen and things change. That's the NBA for you."
McLemore is right. The NBA can be fickle, particularly with bad teams. Things can change with a drop of a hat and suddenly you're with a new coach who doesn't know how to use you properly or didn't have enough time to know where you best fit. What gets lost in the shuffle, however, are these young players who are often drafted to these dysfunctional franchises.
Ben McLemore had four different coaches in four seasons. Four different voices and play-styles for a young player just trying to get his bearings in the NBA. First it was Malone, then it was Ty Corbin, then it was George Karl, and then Dave Joerger. There was no stability in sight.
McLemore was eventually traded to the Grizzlies before being traded back to the Kings. He was waived in February of 2019. Not to see the floor for several months, it was pretty clear what label was going to be headed McLemore's way - bust. As many players that have come before him, McLemore would be recognized only for his faults and the bad teams he played on and not for the very attractive tools he had coming into the draft.
The Rockets, however, viewed McLemore differently.
"For us, we're a little bit different, because we predicate so much on shooting to keep people off James [Harden]," said Lucas on the free agency process. "Ben McLemore's shot had nothing technically wrong. It was because of the things we were talking about, he had lost his confidence. So the question became 'Can we get him his confidence back to be able to play at the level he thought?"
With Houston, McLemore found a pretty natural fit early on. The Rockets loved him in their early training camp workouts. James Harden had even taken him under his wing and built up his confidence in the process.
"Having those workouts and just knowing the history here with coach D'Antoni [was big]," said McLemore. "Just watching their previous games and how they run their offense and I just knew that it made sense with my abilities to shoot the ball, run in transition, and being around Russ and James."
With the injuries to Gerald Green and Eric Gordon (early on), playing time opened up for McLemore, an opportunity he relished and took full advantage of.
Ben McLemore per 36 minutes in 2019-20:
39.4% shooting from three-point range
62.3% true shooting
"They brought me in for a reason, so I didn't put my head down [when I wasn't playing]," said McLemore. "I just stayed patient and waited on my time."
To say McLemore's patience paid off is an understatement. After being labeled a bust and on the verge of being out of the league, he found himself thriving in a team offense in the same way Austin Rivers' found with the Clippers. He's a legitimate NBA player, and nobody can take that away from him. And he doesn't view himself as a finished product.
"Even throughout training camp, I always talk to the coaches," said McLemore. "They have a great staff here that help guys a lot with film when it comes to the game and trying to get better each and every day. Just everyday since I've been here, I've been reaching out to them, talking to them, and trying to figure out what ways I can get better each and every day."
And the same goes for Rivers. If you ever even suggest that he's hit his peak as a player or that he can't ever be the star player he was drafted to be, he'll shut you down immediately.
"That moment has never come for me because you never know," said Rivers. "I'm 27 years old, so who's to say I can't do something? Obviously right now I'm here and I'm playing behind two of the greatest players in the league. What would you say if I were somewhere else a year or two from now? And I get a shot to do the things that I know I can do. My role on this team is not to be that, clearly. My role is to be a great role player, offensive attacker, best defensive perimeter player, high energy, and help this team try and win a championship. That's why we're all here. You got to accept that and I do. But I'll never count myself out. Why not? I know how good I am. I put in the work just like the rest of these dudes. Even if I never get to that point, I'll never count myself out. That's just the way I am."
Some people may find Rivers to be ludicrous here, but going back to earlier, you need this high degree of self-confidence to make it in the league otherwise you're dead in the water. The NBA is really, really hard. The amount of players that fall through the crack after similar career starts to Rivers and McLemore are too much to count. The average career is four and a half years for a reason.
"So much of this in our league is getting with the right team and the right fit because a lot of times people in our league will take talent over need," said Lucas. "And so, you may not ever end up on the team where you can excel."
But both McLemore and Rivers are past that stage in their career now. Did they take pride in proving doubters wrong along the way? Absolutely, but that's human nature. For the Rockets, they have a bigger picture in mind.
"I never want to regret anything," said McLemore. "It's 2020 now, so I have to look to the future and what's happening now. I'm here with the Houston Rockets and I have a great role here that I want to continue to be great at and to continue to do whatever I need to do to help my team and this organization bring a championship here."