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Lamb taking full advantage of opportunity with Hornets

Finally getting consistent playing time, the fourth-year guard is putting together a career season which could result in awards

POSTED: Nov 25, 2015 12:37 PM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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Jeremy Lamb is averaging career highs in minutes (24.1), points (12.5), rebounds (4.4) and assists (1.5) this season.

The Charlotte Hornets are grateful at this Thanksgiving juncture of the early NBA season that they have a valuable, off-the-bench scorer who comes in both like a Lamb and a lion.

Neither the Hornets nor Jeremy Lamb knew precisely what each was getting back in June when Charlotte acquired the fourth-year wing player as their turn in the great Luke Ridnour Hot-Potato roundabout. In three seasons as a backup with Oklahoma City, Lamb's opportunities and contributions had been sporadic, his most noteworthy role coming at the very start when he was tossed as an untested rookie into the James Harden trade with Houston.

Three years later, about the only thing anyone knew with certainty about the two-season UConn product was that he knew the quickest route and best gas station between OKC and Tulsa, where Thunder management sent him constantly through his rookie year. Ten roundtrips in all, farmed out and called back again and again, Lamb navigated the 107 miles or so often enough that he probably could do it blindfolded.

That's nearly the state in which the Hornets and Lamb found themselves when they came together over the summer. Even three months later, there were plenty of blanks still waiting to be filled when the team and the player agreed -- with only the barest of shared history -- to lock into a three-year, $21 million contract extension to fend off Lamb's restricted free agency in 2016.

My first three years in the league were tough mentally ... not knowing if I was going to play, when I was going to play, how much I was going to play.

– Hornets' Jeremy Lamb

To some, it was the equivalent of buying the engagement ring before the second date. But Charlotte coach Steve Clifford had been an admirer of Lamb from afar, his affection growing as they got closer.

"The first thing that he did, as soon as we made the trade, he was in Charlotte in three weeks -- and he's been there ever since," Clifford said recently. "He got there in July and he started working with our coaches and our strength people, and I think that's helped him a lot.

"The second thing is, I knew he could shoot -- I mean, he can really shoot -- but I had no idea how well he could pass the ball. He can pass off the dribble. He makes good decisions, so he's a better pick-and-roll player than I thought. And what he's done for us, he's given us a lot of drive-and-kick plays that I didn't know he was capable of doing."

Said Lamb of his contract: "Some people say 'You could have gotten more if you play 'this' way and showed your value. You should have waited.' But I love the game of basketball. It was just a real blessing that they would offer me [that] before I was anything in the league. They simply offered me that because they believed in me. And that was huge to me.

"It's a great place for me. Great coach, great team. It's close to my home city, Atlanta. I just felt like this contract would give me some time to grow as a player. Really work on my game and, next time around, we'll see. But it was a blessing and I was really excited."

The payoff has gone both ways. When it plays host to Washington Wednesday (7 p.m. ET, League Pass), Charlotte will be seeking its ninth victory in 12 games. The Hornets are 1.7 points per 100 possessions better with Lamb on the floor than off -- the second-best rating among their reserves -- and he is one of only two bench players (Denver's Will Barton is the other) averaging at least 12 points, four rebounds and an assist.

He is averaging career highs in minutes (24.1), points (12.5), rebounds (4.4) and assists (1.5), as well as field-goal percentage (53.6 percent), but none of that should be surprising given the opportunity he's found in Charlotte vs. OKC. Among Clifford's rotation guys, Lamb ranks third behind only Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson in per-minute scoring. And at 53.6 percent, his accuracy among NBA guards who have played at least 10 games is second in the league.

In his 13 appearances, Lamb has scored in double figures 10 times, netting 15 points or more three times. He has made 35.4 percent of his 3-pointers and 79.4 percent of shots at the rim. And his work in victories over Minnesota, New York and Portland had some wondering if maybe Lamb shouldn't be starting. Hey, if he can help that much, who cares about the Sixth Man Award? He still could win Most Improved.

Biggest increase, eFG%, '14-15 to '15-16
Player 2014-15 Rank1 2015-16 Rank2 Diff.
Jeremy Lamb 49.2% 161 60.4% 5 11.2%
C.J. Miles 49.1% 166 59.7% 6 10.6%
Trey Burke 43.0% 284 52.7% 53 9.7%
Langston Galloway 46.0% 244 55.7% 24 9.7%
Kemba Walker 42.9% 285 52.3% 55 9.4%
Through Tuesday, Nov. 25.
Minimum 250 FGA in '14-15, 100 FGA in '15-16.
Rank1 = Among 301 players w/ at least 250 FGA in '14-15.
Rank2 = Among 158 players w/ at least 100 FGA in '15-16.
eFG% = (FGM + (0.5 * 3PM)) / FGA

Clifford heard lots of that in the season's first few weeks. More than enough, in fact.

"This is what I think: Let's see how, after 30 games, people are playing," he said. "I'm looking for the best roles for the team. Some guys are great players 22 minutes a night playing against [subs], especially guys who haven't ever played [regularly] before. Talent is one thing. Look, I don't want to give the guy's name but my first year [as an assistant coach] with the Knicks, we had a rookie who was out of the league that year who had 28 one night at Detroit. That is this league."

Clifford's deployment of Lamb has been driven by the matchups he gets at both ends as a substitute. He has skill and length advantages over a lot of opposing reserves who are forced to guard him and, defensively, he's not strong enough or quick enough right now to keep up with some of the elite scorers he would face as a starter. So P.J. Hairston, who has one inch and 45 pounds on Lamb, gets the starts but averages fewer minutes (17.7).

I knew he could shoot -- I mean, he can really shoot -- but I had no idea how well he could pass the ball.

– Hornets' coach Steve Clifford on Jeremy Lamb

Lamb, understandably, isn't hung up on it at all. "I don't really have a preference," he told NBA.com. "Last year, I came from not playing at all. I just want to play."

Of his three seasons, 2014-15 was the most trying for Lamb. After averaging nearly 20 minutes in 78 games the year before, he slid back to 13.5 in just 47. His shooting suffered (41.2 percent), his concentration waned.

Fortunately, the stacked Thunder roster that made opportunity so scarce for him was populated with players who helped Lamb through it.

"My first three years in the league were tough mentally," Lamb said, "not knowing if I was going to play, when I was going to play, how much I was going to play. But I had a lot of good teammates around me and a lot of people around me saying, 'The hard work's gonna pay off. You're gonna get through it.' If I didn't have those guys -- [GM] Sam Presti, KD [Kevin Durant], Nick Collison, [Kendrick] Perkins, Reggie Jackson, those guys, my family -- they really stayed in my ear and helped me get through it. If you don't have that support system, it's really easy to drift off."

The same goes for work habits, harder to come by for those who play little.

"The biggest thing I've learned is, you've got to get on a routine," Lamb said. "It's a long season. It's a grind, a lot of games, a lot of practices. So mentally you've got to be ready every day.

"You've got to get your work in, whether it's getting some shots up, lifting, eating the right things -- every day you've got to do something to better your body. If you're not on a routine and you're not focused mentally, over the 82 games you will fall down and not be able to get back up."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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