By Sam Perley
One of the most difficult things to do in any professional setting is succeed when you’re expected to succeed. Coming off the most productive summer of his career coupled with a preseason elbow injury to Nicolas Batum meant it was now or never for Hornets shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. If the first three months of the season are any indication, the sixth-year veteran has definitely been raising the bar for himself.
The Hornets acquired Lamb in a deal back in June 2015 with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he had spent his first three professional seasons. At the time, he was a young, tantalizing talent more known for being one of the Thunder’s primary returning assets in the James Harden trade with the Houston Rockets.
Oklahoma City was coming off a NBA Finals appearance at the start of Lamb’s rookie season in 2012 and was still very much in a “win-now” mode. Staring up at established veterans like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Kevin Martin and Thabo Sefolosha on the Thunder depth chart meant minutes were scarce for the first-year UConn product.
Lamb’s arrival in Charlotte finally provided him with an opportunity for more playing time as he turned heads in the first few weeks with his new team. Injuries and the relative unfamiliarity of a full 82-game schedule eventually took a toll on Lamb’s production and his minutes dwindled significantly by the end of the 2015-16 season.
His numbers improved across the board in his second season with the Hornets, but hamstring and toe injuries limited him to just 62 total appearances.
As Lamb entered his third year in Charlotte, some wondered if he could fully live up to his enticing potential. He displayed flashes of athleticism and natural talent at times, although consistency always seemed to be the overarching obstacle.
Batum tearing the UCL in his left elbow during an exhibition game on Oct. 4 meant Lamb would slide into Charlotte’s opening night lineup. Perhaps a breakthrough stretch in his career, Lamb posted averages of 16.7 points on 46.8 percent shooting, 5.1 rebounds and 3.2 assists across his 12-game stint as a starter.
For some who worked with him early on in his career, it was only a matter of time before Lamb’s talent and potential finally broke through.
“He’s always had the skill. The only issue was he was physically slight and thin,” said former Oklahoma City Head Coach Scott Brooks, who is now at the helm of the Washington Wizards. “When the head coach is probably stronger than you, that’s not a good sign. You knew when his body would fill out, that he had the skill set, a great shot. He’s very smooth, his floater is hard to guard, his passing is above average.”
Brooks added before his current team’s Nov. 22 game against the Hornets that it was good to see Lamb playing well, but “hopefully, he doesn’t play well tonight.” Alas, he proceeded to watch his former player erupt for 24 points, seven rebounds, five assists and three blocks off the bench in Charlotte’s overtime victory.
A substantial amount of Lamb’s recent success can be credited to improved off-the-court habits with regards to his nutrition and sleep. He’s figured out how to best prepare his body in order to maximize his chances at success on a nightly basis and much of that simply comes with maturing as a player.
“Very rarely – if ever – [do] you see a 21-year-old worried about what they eat or how they sleep. If they are, they’re a little odd because none of us did,” added Brooks, a former NBA player himself. “A lot of times when you coach younger players, you want them to be 26 years old at 21 and you can only get there one day at a time. [Lamb’s] put the work in. He’s deserving of his success.”
One of the knocks on Lamb in recent years was that he was largely just a scorer – and a limited one at that. Right now, he ranks fourth in the league in bench points (13.4 per game; mini. 20 GP), while his overall scoring (14.4 points), rebounding (4.6), assists (2.6) and steals (0.8) averages are all at career highs.
His play has even been recognized by ESPN Senior Writer, Zach Lowe, who recently commended Lamb for the noticeable improvements to his all-around game.
“Lamb is finally showing interest in the selfless parts of the game - the stuff that wins,” wrote Lowe in his weekly “Ten Things I like and don’t like,” published back on Dec. 1. “He's tossing hit-aheads in transition, tic-tac-toeing extra passes, and making plays as a secondary pick-and-roll guy - including tough dishes to the opposite corner. He's working harder on defense, and gobbling up rebounds.”
Nearing the midway point of the NBA schedule, the key for Lamb over the next few months will be not only sustaining his on-court production, but also keeping up with any and all off-the-court habits amidst the increasing threat of fatigue and injury. Under contract through the conclusion of next season, Lamb should be a vital part of the Charlotte bench for the immediate and upcoming future.