February 9, 2016, published on SBNation.com
As practice wound down in early January, many of Jeremy Lamb’s teammates rested on the sideline with ice bags on their calves, thighs or feet. Others stretched. Some engaged in media interviews. But the fourth-year Hornets guard wanted to keep shooting until the team’s bus arrived, as Charlotte was in Westwood, Calif., preparing for a game against the Clippers the next day.
Catch. Shoot. Catch. Dribble. Shoot. Crossover pull-ups, long threes, deep twos, between the legs mid-range elbows, free throws — with each shot Lamb extended his arm, flicked his wrist and curled his fingertips over as if pulling a cookie out of a jar. The ball continued to glide through the net and Lamb didn’t seem to want to stop.
“From the moment he stepped foot in Charlotte, even back in the summer time, I felt like he came to Charlotte with a worker’s-like attitude,” Hornets forward Marvin Williams said. “He was in the gym every single day, he was in the weight room every single day.”
Lamb, who dropped 18 points and 13 boards off the bench against the Clippers on Jan. 9, knows how precious each shot is. Spending the last three years in Oklahoma City and in the D-League, Lamb questioned if his young NBA career was nearing its end. That’s why the 23-year-old is shooting jumper after jumper, determined to make a mark with his new team. The reserve is averaging a career-high 10.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 21 minutes.
“He’s a guy that can really go in and get hot and really change the game in our second unit,” Hornets center Frank Kaminsky said.
A spark that drains a three, intercepts a pass or rips down a rebound, Lamb is helping the Hornets (26-26) fight for a playoff spot.
“When I was in OKC, I wasn’t playing and everybody was telling me, ‘It’s going to pay off. It’s going to pay off. Just keep working,’” Lamb said, finally taking a seat to cool down. “I really just tried to earn my keep and just keep working hard … At times it seemed like it wasn’t paying off and hard work was not doing anything. But hard work always pays off.”
School began at 7:20 a.m. sharp. From 6 to 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, a teenage Jeremy Lamb and his father, former Virginia Commonwealth standout Rolando Lamb, would shoot a combination of shots: threes, floaters, mid-range, step-backs, all at game-speed. Only makes were counted.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t even take a shower. I’d change my clothes and be sweating in class,” Lamb said. “But I’d be there at 7:20.”
Lamb made junior varsity at Norcross (Georgia) High School as a sophomore, while his older brother Zach, a junior, made varsity. Competition was stiff, as Norcross was coming off back-to-back state championships in 2006 and 2007. The pair constantly played one-on-one and held shooting competitions to push each other, though Zach had the upper hand. Jeremy could hit from long distance but hadn’t yet unwrapped his physical gifts.
“He was like an alien, just all arms and legs, very, very skinny,” Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said.
Undeterred, Lamb added muscle and perfected his fundamentals, landing a spot on varsity as a junior. He embraced the sixth-man role, backing up his brother and several other seniors. Rather than complain, he did what was asked of him: stretch the defense off the bench and give his all in practice, helping Norcross to a 27-3 record.
“At the end of the day obviously he wanted to perform well individually, but ultimately he always had a team-first mentality,” McMillan said. “He understood that he had a role.”
Lamb had one Division I scholarship offer from UNC Greensboro heading into summer before his senior year. Stronger, quicker and more confident, he exploded at the prestigious Peach Jam AAU tournament, outplaying ranked players. With each three, the coaches flipped through their notebooks to figure out who the kid was.
“He shot the roof off,” said Walter White, Lamb’s AAU coach at the Georgia Stars. “He wanted to let everybody know that he could play at that level.”
Lamb left Peach Jam with over 35 offers, eventually accepting one from coach Jim Calhoun at Connecticut.
“He waited his turn. He worked his butt off. He believed in himself,” McMillan said. “I don’t think he was under any pressure at all. I think he was just like, ‘Hey, it’s finally my turn.’”
Lamb started for the first time as a senior, averaging 20 points a game to lead Norcross to the regional championship.
High hopes followed Lamb his freshman season at UConn in 2010-11. The unassuming 6’5, 180-pound wing possessed the length, speed and range to thrive in the collegiate game. He could drain a long three or snag a steal out of the passing lane with arms resembling tentacles.
“He’s kind of like a sleepy athlete. You can sleep on his athleticism because he’s so long,” said former UConn assistant coach Andre LaFleur, now associate head coach at Providence.
But again Lamb had to earn his spot, as veterans Kemba Walker and Alex Oriakhi had earned starring roles. Lamb started but at times revealed his youth and inexperience, like when he went scoreless in an eight-minute outing against Texas.
“The whole first half of the season I played terrible,” Lamb said. “Absolutely terrible.”
LaFleur said the grind of the college season caught up to Lamb, as it does to all rookies.
“He was just about to hit the wall,” LaFleur said. “I think there was some talk about maybe shuffling the lineup and taking him out of the lineup and then he re-emerged.”
Lamb resurfaced on the biggest stage, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds in the Huskies’ NCAA Championship win over Butler. Before that: 12 points, nine rebounds and four assists against Kentucky in the Final Four; 19 points and four rebounds against Arizona in the Elite Eight; 24 points against San Diego State in the Sweet 16.
“You started to realize that not only was he a very good player but that’s when he showed glimpses of being special,” LaFleur said.
Drafted 12th by Houston in 2012 but traded to Oklahoma City before the season as part of the James Harden deal, Lamb found himself at the bottom of the food chain again. Many nights, he watched Thunder superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook dazzle from the bench. Lamb averaged six minutes of tick for OKC in 2012-13, some games not checking in at all. He was assigned to the D-League’s Tulsa 66ers 10 times, unsure of the next time he’d be called up or down.
Doubts consumed him: How long was this back and forth going to last? Would he ever secure a regular spot in an NBA rotation? It didn’t matter that he had helped UConn to a national championship; every D-League player was clawing for only so many jerseys.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to stay in the league,” Lamb said. “I wasn’t very confident. It was tough.”
But Lamb kept shooting. He viewed the D-League as a positive rather than a negative. He maximized drills in practice and gained experience in games. He relied on family and OKC teammates, who encouraged him to stay the course and continue working. He was named a D-League All-Star in 2013 after averaging 21 points, 5.3 rebounds and three assists per game. His prospects brightened in 2013-14 when he averaged 8.5 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.5 assists in 19 minutes per game over 78 contests for the Thunder. But that light soon dimmed, as he played 47 games (starting eight) in 2014-15 with a modest line of 6.3 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
“Game day he was in the gym. He was treating the game-day workouts just like an All-Star would,” McMillan said. “He knew that his time was coming.”
Lamb has made the most of his minutes for Charlotte since being traded last June, as he knows they can disappear as quickly as they arrived. In the absence of Al Jefferson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Lamb is shooting 45 percent from the field and 31 percent from three. In November, Charlotte signed Lamb to a three-year contract extension worth $21 million.
“I think this is really, in many ways, the very beginning for him,” Hornets coach Steve Clifford said. “This is the first time he’s got to play in a rotation every night, and I think he fits well with the way that we play. He’s already helped us win a bunch of games.”
Proving to be a dynamic scorer, Lamb is both catching-and-shooting and creating off the dribble from both midrange and long distance. With a quick in-and-out move, Lamb often squeezes past a defender to attack the rim.
“He’s very, very difficult to guard,” Williams said. “He’s a lot quicker than people think he is, he’s a lot stronger than people think he is.”
More than a scorer, Lamb often penetrates into the key to draw the defense before kicking the ball out to an open teammate for a perimeter shot. He also intercepts passes on defense and is active on the glass, pulling down five or more rebounds 15 times. Lamb has flourished in recent games, including posting 15 points, eight rebounds and three steals over the Nuggets (Jan. 10); 18 points and 13 boards over the Clippers (Jan. 9); and 22 points, three boards and three steals over the Warriors (Jan. 4).
“This is a huge blessing. I’m so thankful because I didn’t know where my NBA career was going,” Lamb said. “I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. But to be in this situation now? I’m lost for words.”
Lamb isn’t satisfied, though. Sometimes he shoots above 50 percent, others he shoots below 30 percent. Some games he plays 12 minutes, others he plays 30. His spot is never certain. That’s why he has already identified weaknesses to perfect in the offseason:
“My mindset, my defense, strength. There’s a lot of stuff I could improve,” Lamb said. “The shots I get in the game. Handles. Man … everything.”
Catch. Shoot. Catch. Dribble. Shoot. He knows the drill.