Lamb’s Season Highlighted by Late-Game Heroics, Defined by Team-First Mentality

by Sam Perley

Back in 2016, first-year Hornet Jeremy Lamb was playing sparingly in the second half of the season, often racking up inconsequential minutes mixed with a handful of DNP-CD’s. Today, he’s coming off the best campaign of his seven-year NBA career, one in which he separated himself as an all-around scorer, a fourth-quarter finisher and above all, a selfless teammate.

A long-time bench player going into training camp last fall, the 26-year-old Lamb won the team’s starting two-guard spot with incumbent Nic Batum moving to small forward and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist heading to the reserves. The UConn product quickly began running away with his hard-earned opportunity, giving the first unit a much-needed scoring threat alongside Kemba Walker.

From the start, Lamb’s improvements in terms of offensive versatility were on full display. He showed an adept and aggressive propensity for scoring on and off the dribble, in the lane (those trademark floaters), from distance and seemingly everywhere in between. On Dec. 12, he sunk the first game-winner of his NBA career at home against Detroit, giving fans an early taste of what was to come.

Lamb missed his only three games of the year in early January with a slight hamstring strain and cruised into the All-Star Break sporting averages of 15.2 PPG on 44.2% shooting, 5.6 RPG, 2.0 APG and 1.0 SPG over 54 appearances. All the relentless offseason work was paying off for Lamb, although an unforeseen lineup tweak was looming just around the corner.

Looking to add more offensive punch to the second unit, Head Coach James Borrego had Lamb come off the bench for all but one of the final 25 games, which bumped rookie Miles Bridges into the starting five. It was a tough decision that Lamb could have gone one of two ways with, but he handled the situation with impressive class and professionalism.

“When [Coach Borrego] first told me, I was surprised, but I told him I trusted him,” recalled Lamb. “I was going to play hard and do my job regardless.” Borrego added, “[He’s] in the best season of his career. I asked him to come off the bench and he just kept thriving, getting better and didn’t complain one time.”

“That’s rare because I think if that happens to anyone, it’s possible for them to be super mad or not play as hard, but he embraced it,” stated Walker. “He took it like a man and took his game to a whole other level. That’s great maturity on his behalf. He didn’t let it bother him. He didn’t put his head down. He stayed tough and that is what we needed.”

Across the last eight weeks of the season, Lamb recorded a nearly identical stat line with marks of 15.6 PPG on 43.5% shooting, 5.4 RPG, 2.5 APG and 1.4 SPG. He saw virtually the exact same number of minutes per outing and saw sharp increases in both his three-point (33.5% to 37.5%) and free-throw percentages (86.4% to 93.4%).

What memorably stood out during this stretch though was Lamb’s aptitude for knocking down a handful of clutch-as-they-come shots. After his clincher against the Pistons, he drained additional game-winning baskets against Washington on March 8, in Toronto on March 24 (a banked-in half-court heave as time expired) and versus the Raptors once again on April 5.

“I did have some exciting moments,” he said. “They definitely will stick with me for a long time. It was definitely amazing. Just some of the things I dreamed about and then they came true. The half-court shot was crazy. My first one against Detroit, that stands out, too just because I had never hit [a game-winner]. I think all of them are special. All of them I’m going to watch and probably tell my kids about. I wouldn’t put a favorite on any one.”

Lamb finished the season with career highs across the board in scoring (15.3 PPG), rebounding (5.5; second amongst NBA SG), steals (1.1), total three-pointers (115) and made free throws (231 on 88.8% shooting). He drew 126 shooting fouls (99 last year and just 66 in 2016-17), and also led the Hornets with 160 deflections on defense.

“I think I went into the season open to starting this kid, not really knowing what he could become. Through development, through our system, through coaching him, he had the best season of his career,” said Borrego. “He’s a special guy and I love being around him. I love coaching him. I’m not sure too many people thought he had upside in him. When you look at this season, I think he showed he has upside, an ability to score, to play make. His defense was probably better this season than what most people thought he could play. He performed especially well in the fourth quarters.”

Hornets President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak added, “I think Jeremy had a huge step this year. I think he really separated himself from the pack as a player. I’m happy for him. He worked hard. He worked really hard last summer. He hardly missed a game this year and got better and better as the season went on.”

Like Walker, Lamb is now an unrestricted free agent. He stated during his exit interview that being a starter won’t be the sole determining factor this summer. Rather, he wants to find a location where he can continue growing and developing as a player on and off the court.

“I would love to come back,” he said. “This team, this organization has done so much for my career. I’ve learned so much. I’ve developed, I’ve grown. I love it here, but things don’t always end up like that. There’s a lot of different things that have to go right. I’m going to soak up the season, spend some time with my family and worry about that later.”

If everything works out, maybe fans will indeed see Lamb back in Charlotte next season and beyond. One thing that’s for sure though is the memories of all those game-winners won’t be easily forgotten anytime soon.

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