KU freshman Ben McLemore declares for NBA Draft

Kansas guard Ben McLemore wipes away tears as he leaves a news conference with family members after declaring his intention to enter the 2013 NBA Draft. At left is his mother, Sonja Reid Nick Krug/Journal-World Photo

Ben McLemore knows he made the right decision in choosing to enter his name in the 2013 NBA Draft.

“All my teammates and coaches said, ‘If it’s your time, it’s your time.’ It was my time,” the 20-year-old Kansas University freshman sensation said at a Tuesday news conference announcing his decision to leave school with three years of eligibility remaining.

“As a kid growing up, that’s what I wanted to do,” McLemore added of playing at the highest level. “Now I’ve got the opportunity to do that and provide for my family.”

Though seen as a no-brainer — McLemore is expected to be taken in the top three of the June draft — the decision was nonetheless painful for a person who is in no hurry to cut short his college experience.

The 6-foot-5 St. Louis native covered his eyes as he was embraced by his mother and two sisters shortly after leaving the media room where he and coach Bill Self fielded questions for about 30 minutes.

“I’ll remember this place the rest of my life,” McLemore said. “I’m going to miss my teammates, coaching staff, academic people and I am definitely going to miss the fans. The fans were supportive throughout this whole season.”

McLemore recalled fondly the night he scored 30 points in a win over Kansas State — a game in which KU’s fans serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” as he left the court.

“Being here, I’ve changed a lot,” said McLemore, KU’s all-time freshman scoring leader at 15.9 ppg. “Like coach said, I’ve matured a lot too. I’m a humble person and soft-spoken kid, but just being able to be here and have this special day is a blessing.”

It’s a day Self said was inevitable because of McLemore’s skills and where the second-team All-American is projected to fall in the draft.

“My personal opinion is if he were my son I would certainly strongly recommend he make the jump at this time,” Self said.

“I don’t think there was one time our staff sat around this year and said, ‘We hope Ben comes back.’ When he started blowing up, a little bit after the Ohio State game (22 points in Dec. 22 victory), I’m thinking, ‘Oh jeez. I’m glad we have him because we’re winning, but we aren’t going to have him long.”’

McLemore, who red-shirted a year ago, had progressed so rapidly last winter that Self just knew Ben was exaggerating when he told the staff he’d be back for another season.

“Ben kept telling us in February ‘Don’t worry about getting anybody else, I’m coming back,’ and we were like, ‘Yeah, right,'” Self said with a laugh. “We did say, ‘Do you want to make that a public announcement?’ but he didn’t ever agree to that so I knew that I was in trouble.

“But things change. The thing that was really encouraging to me about Ben and how he handled everything was he didn’t handle it during the season. That wasn’t something weighing on his head or heart because he knew he still had a job to do here, and if you do your job here then you have an opportunity to make decisions after. If he would have told me he wanted to come back I would have said, ‘Well Ben, we need to look at this again.'”

The next step for McLemore is to hire an agent.

“I’ll sit down and talk to some people and figure out where I want to sign and who I want to work with,” he said.

One thing is sure. McLemore will be a wealthy man next season. The money will come in handy after growing up in near poverty as a child in St. Louis.

“It was kind of tough, but at the same time, growing up not having a lot, I don’t need to talk about what I don’t have. I remember coach saying that,” McLemore said. “I just talk about what I want to try to get, and try to help my family. Being little, growing up, you just think about you want to provide for your family. Coming here and sitting out last year and being able to play this year, I got the opportunity to do that and I took it.”

Self said McLemore would remain enrolled in classes the rest of the semester. As far as the Jayhawks’ future, Self now must replace all five starters from a 31-6 team. KU has signed five high school players with three scholarships left to award.

“On the surface it would look like a huge rebuilding job,” Self said, “but we’ve had rebuilding jobs here before. We’d like to add another piece or two, without question. It’s hard to say if we’re going to be good, or how good, but I’d be really surprised if next year’s team isn’t competitive, and doesn’t compete for championships, just like other teams we’ve had here.”

Where will he land?: McLemore was asked if there’s any team he’d like to draft him.

“No, not really. I am a Miami Heat fan, but I really don’t have a team I really want to go to and play for,” he said.

Upon hearing his fondness for the Heat, Self cracked: “You’re not going to fall to No. 30, bud.”

Self on whether McLemore will be taken No. 1 overall: “I think Ben would agree that there’s probably no clear-cut, definite No. 1, but from what I’ve seen I think everybody’s got him 1, 2 or 3. I can’t believe that he would fall out of that range, because I know he’ll work,” Self said.

How much money?: If McLemore is selected No. 1 in the draft, he’d make $4,436,900 next season, $4,636,600 in the second year and $4,836,300 in the third year. If he’s taken No. 2, he’d make $3,939,800 his first year, $4,148,500 the second and $4,327,100 the third. If he’s selected No. 3 he’d make $3,565,000 next year, $3,725,400 the second and $3,885,800 the third. Fourth year is team option.