The learning curve for Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore actually began when he arrived on campus as a freshman in September 2011, unable to play or even to practice or work out with his teammates. Ruled academically ineligible by the NCAA for the '11--12 season, McLemore had to train on his own until he attained at least a 3.0 GPA in his first semester. When he finally took the court that December for his first practice, his passion made an immediate impact on the starters. "I really think [sitting out] made him appreciate what college is all about," says coach Bill Self. "He enjoys learning, but there's no doubt he enjoys basketball more, especially [because] it was taken away. Both he and Jamari [Traylor, also ruled academically ineligible as a freshman] changed our team from an intensity standpoint."
McLemore's immediate success in practice helped him build confidence in his rusty game and shaped high expectations for this season. But no one anticipated this: By January he was rocketing up NBA draft boards, many of which project him as the No. 1 pick in June. A 6' 5", 195-pound slasher with excellent court vision and a high release, McLemore led the Jayhawks with 16.4 points per game on just 10.9 shots, hitting 50.7% from the field and 43.7% from beyond the arc. He scored 30 or more three times, including 36 on only 15 shots in a 91--65 win over West Virginia on March 2, breaking the Kansas freshman record set by Danny Manning in 1985.
And there's ample room for improvement. McLemore's scoring dipped to 13.9 points per game on the road, and he was often criticized by Self for selflessness. "It's not just scoring," McLemore says. "I need to start showing up and making plays for my teammates, and I haven't been doing that in away games. I need to keep playing my game, go out there and be more aggressive."
McLemore's basketball odyssey began at Wellston High in St. Louis, where he was viewed as an undersized power forward. After the state closed down Wellston for poor academic performance in 2010, he transferred to Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., for his senior year, only to transfer again in February 2011—this time to Christian Life Center Academy in Humble, Texas, after being dismissed from Oak Hill for breaking a school rule.
With all eyes on the Final Four in Atlanta, Self hopes the redshirt freshman can be more consistent on offense and maintain the type of assertiveness he showed during his first practices and lead Kansas to a deep tournament run. "Certainly you could tell how talented he was, but you didn't know if he really knew how to play," Self said. "The kid wants to be a player so bad, he can't help but be good with how athletic he is."
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
PASSION PLAYER After having to sit out a season, McLemore first lifted the Jayhawks with his intensity in practice, then with his team-high 16.4 points per game.