New York — The streets outside the Westin Times Square are filled with traffic, tourists and unrelenting signs of a city on the go. There’s a mixed odor of food, garbage and humidity in the air, exhaust fumes hang just above eye level, and professional autograph-seekers stalk both corners of the 45-story hotel.
On the outside, it hardly seems like the right setting to host the latest crop of golden boys the NBA is ushering in from the college ranks this week. On the inside, former Kansas University star Ben McLemore sits wide-eyed and excited and says the unfamiliar surroundings were unlike anything he had ever seen.
New York City is no Lawrence, Kan., just as the NBA is no college basketball. But in the days ahead, beginning with today’s 6 p.m. draft at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, McLemore is determined to prove he belongs in both.
“It’s very different than Lawrence, that’s for sure,” said McLemore, who, along with his mother, father, brother and three sisters, is making his first trip to the Big Apple. “All these buildings, the lights, all of the people … it’s amazing. It’s definitely different than I expected.”
McLemore said he talked last week to his older brother, Keith Scott, who is currently serving time in Potosi Correctional Center in Mineral Springs, Mo., and Scott told him he would be able to watch tonight’s draft.
Most analysts expect McLemore to be selected in the top five tonight, but his draft stock has slipped during the past few weeks. NBA general managers continue to worry whether the 6-foot-5 forward can turn his heart of gold into a killer instinct against the best players in the world.
McLemore is not worried — not about his draft position, not about the perception that he’s too kind and not about whether he’ll be able to flip the switch when playing the game he loves becomes a full-time job. In many ways, he says he already has done that, and he credits former Jayhawk Thomas Robinson, who was selected fifth by Sacramento in last year’s draft, with helping him realize what it took.
“I just remember watching him and thinking, ‘Wow, he’s an animal, and when he’s like that he can’t be stopped,’” McLemore said. “I saw it all the time. And watching him do those things when the team needed it most made me want to be like that.”
Of course, it’s easy for a guy like Robinson, who plays power forward and looks as if he were chiseled from a block of granite, to choose to dominate and drip aggression.
It’s harder for a smooth-shooting small forward like McLemore, whose knockout blows are delivered more gently.
McLemore’s rise from rags to the cusp of NBA riches is not unique. But not all young men who have walked in McLemore’s shoes have carried themselves the way he has throughout his time in Kansas and this week in New York.
McLemore, on the bus ride back from visiting the 9/11 Memorial as part of the NBA Cares community outreach program, was the first one to clap for the speech given by a survivor of the terrorist attacks in 2001. He also chimed in with the first “thank you” after Anthoula Katsimatides, the sister of a victim of the attacks who was on hand Wednesday to give the 2013 draft class a tour of the grounds, shared the history of the pristine property and wished luck to a bunch of guys who were not yet 10 years old at the time of the tragedy.
Despite his kind and caring demeanor, McLemore insists that he’s tough enough to handle the challenges life in the NBA will throw at him.
“During the season, I showed some spurts of what I can do,” McLemore said. “But I know that at the next level I’ve gotta be on all the time. And I’m ready for that. My mind-set’s already there.”
Don’t take McLemore’s word for it, though. Listen to his younger brother, Kevin, a dead-ringer for McLemore in the face — he is a few inches shorter — who also was in awe of the bustling city around him.
“He’s such a nice guy,” began Kevin, almost apologizing for saying it. “But if you test him, he’ll make you pay. He may smile all day, but he’ll beat you by making jump shots or dunking on you. There’s no doubt he’s got that in him.”
Added former KU guard Tyshawn Taylor, now in his second season with the Brooklyn Nets: “His height, his athleticism, the way he shoots the ball … Ben has all that stuff. But I think that kind of aggressiveness can take any player to the next level, and hopefully the NBA does it to him.”
Asked if he had seen a different side of his brother during the past couple of months, Kevin answered as if he were talking to one of his McLemore’s future employers.
“I have,” he said. “His workouts have been much more intense, and he’s very aggressive now.”
For McLemore, who spent an hour Wednesday night at Champs Sports in Times Square signing autographs for hundreds of fans — many of them Jayhawk fans — that mentality is nothing new. Showing it, however, is.
“It’s all in the heart,” McLemore said. “I know who I am, and I know what I can do. I also know that it’s time to show it. It’s not hard at all. You just gotta do it.”
As McLemore stood in the hallway of the Westin and talked with a reporter after the required 30-minute Q&A session Wednesday afternoon, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams walked up behind him, tapped him on his right shoulder and kept walking to the left. When the age-old prank happens to most people, they immediately peek over the shoulder that was tapped. Not McLemore. Without missing a beat, he spun to his left and smiled at Carter-Williams.
“I’m ready,” McLemore said. “I know I’ve done everything I can to put myself in this position, and I can’t wait to see where I end up. I’m not nervous at all. I feel blessed. I’m just extremely happy to be here and ready to walk across that stage.”
Asked if he thought the possibility remained that his could be the first name called at tonight’s draft, McLemore wasted no time and answered with confidence.
“Yes,” he said.
Just after 6 tonight, he’ll know. And if the days leading up to draft night are any indication of what’s ahead, that’s when the St. Louis native will flip the switch.