By Sam Perley
While the recent news of Nicolas Batum’s left elbow injury closed the door on his playing availability for the next 6-8 weeks, it swiftly opened one for now-starting shooting guard Jeremy Lamb. Hornets coaches and fellow players have praised Lamb’s tireless work ethic over the summer and he’ll now have a chance to showcase the strides he’s made.
“[I’m] just trying to get ready. An opportunity has come that I’m ready to take advantage of,” said Lamb. “Hopefully, Nic has a speedy recovery and we can get him back out there as soon as possible.”
Batum’s injury occurred less than a minute into Charlotte’s preseason road win over the Detroit Pistons on Oct. 4. The 10th-year veteran got tangled up coming around an opposing player, causing his left arm to bend awkwardly and tear his UCL. Lamb subbed in immediately and finished the night with an 18-point performance.
Clifford has consistently lauded Lamb’s offseason, stating he’s had as good a summer as any player on the team. Now penciled into the starting lineup, the Hornets Head Coach expressed what he wants to see from him.
“He’s playing really well. When we talked this morning, the only thing I said to him was ‘Play how you play. Play how you’ve been playing,’” said Clifford on Friday afternoon. “He’s very locked in defensively and I think offensively as you can see, he’s on the attack and he’s playing well. He has to play his game. That’s what basketball is all about. Play to your strengths. He’s been solid at both ends of the floor.”
Through Oct. 5, Lamb is tied for fifth in the NBA in preseason scoring amongst players who have made at least two appearances (17.5 points). He’s scored 17-or-more points in both exhibition outings, a feat he has accomplished just twice in the regular season during his five-year NBA career.
Kemba Walker has also been extremely pleased with how his now-starting backcourt partner’s work ethic has been on display over the last few months.
“J-Lamb has worked his behind off all summer to get an opportunity like this. It’s sitting right in front of him and he has to take advantage of it,” said Walker. “Being around Jeremy for so many years, he’s matured a lot. Things have definitely changed. You can see how much he’s grown not only basketball-wise, but mentally as well.”
“I like what he’s done all summer,” said Batum. “Since Media Day [on Sept. 25], I think all the players talked about him and all the work he put in all summer long. You can see it the first two[preseason] games what he did.”
The Frenchman added, “He’s way more mature. He didn’t really play with Oklahoma City [where he was from 2012-15], so technically, it was the beginning of his career with us two years ago. He’s going to be a huge key and now that I’m out for a couple of months, he’s going to [need] to be even bigger for us. We’re going to need him to step up his game even more now. He’s going to do it for sure."
Last season, Lamb was the only player in the league to average at least 9.0 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.0 assist in 20-or-fewer minutes played per game. In fact, only six different players have put up this particular statistical line in a single NBA season since the start of the 1989-90 campaign.
In five games as the team’s starting two-guard last season, Lamb put up averages of 15.2 points on 45.3 percent shooting, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists per outing. For the second-consecutive year, the UConn product also led all qualified NBA shooting guards in rebounds per 48 minutes played (11.1). It was the highest mark by any player at his position since Dallas’ Shawn Marion in 2011-12 (11.6).
Additionally, Lamb, Russell Westbrook (14.8; 2016-17) and Bonzi Wells (11.4; 2005-06) are the only players 6-5 or shorter since the start of the 1993-94 NBA campaign to average at least 11.0 rebounds per 48 minutes for an entire season.
The talent, athleticism and physical dimensions have never been an issue for Lamb. Coming off the most focused offseason of his career (both on and off the court), it seems like he was ready to take a big step forward even before Batum’s injury. This will mark the first time he’s ever had an extended role in the starting lineup, which also brings with it higher expectations and responsibility.
“I just want to be ready and like I said, do what I can to help my team win. I just want to win some games. We got a good team. We just got to put it all together. Hopefully, I can step up and help my team,” said Lamb.
In a recent interview prior to Batum’s injury, Walker alluded to Lamb finally understanding just how important he is to the success of the Charlotte Hornets this season. For the first couple months of the 2017-18 NBA campaign, there probably isn’t a more precise statement he could have made.