Can Jeremy Lamb Handle The Pressure?
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
-Robert Burns, “To A Mouse” (1785)
The above passage, by Scottish poet Robert Burns, translates to the oft-used English phrase “best-laid plans often go awry”. Certainly we’ve all uttered those words at some point when carefully-planned events turn in undesirable directions. Supporters of the Oklahoma City Thunder surely related to Burns’ message when surprising news broke that starting point guard Russell Westbrook would miss the first four to six weeks of the regular season after undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery. In the blink of an eye, long-held plans of witnessing a healthy Westbrook soon taking the court were summarily crushed.
For the glass-half-full set, the Westbrook delay doesn’t spell disaster. True, he may miss about the first 18 games, but with an 82-game NBA season, he should return to play for big chunk of the year. In his absence, certain teammates will get an opportunity to contribute at a greater degree than previously expected. Guard Reggie Jackson figures to take the starting reins, and second-year player Jeremy Lamb should be the first one off the bench.
Prior to the Westbrook news, many deduced Lamb would get considerable playing time this season in light of sharpshooter Kevin Martin’s departure. Though nothing has been promised, Lamb is gearing up for that very scenario. His name is most often associated with one who scores the ball, but he recognizes other parts of his game, namely on the defensive end, must improve.
“Going into games, I’ve always thought ‘I’m going to get this amount of points’, but I think now my mindset is kind of changing to where I want to guard people,” Lamb said. “I want to lock people up, I want to get steals, I want to get rebounds. I think I’ve definitely improved on the defensive end. I’m definitely going to pride myself in defense. I’m going to score the ball, but defense is where I need to work. That’s one of the biggest things in basketball.”
The Thunder acquired Lamb, a two-year UConn product, from the Houston Rockets in the James Harden trade last October. The Rockets had recently selected Lamb with their twelfth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.
Lamb is straightforward when speaking about the trade that brought him to Oklahoma City.
“When I first got traded, it was just a big shock to me, really,” he said. “I was surprised. I didn’t know what to expect. I wasn’t really frustrated, I was…you could say I was lost. It was like I was starting all over, meeting new teammates.
“There’s a lot of different feelings. Nervous, excited, anxious. Last year was different in Houston. I might have played in Houston.”
As it turned out, Lamb didn’t get much playing time in Oklahoma City last season. He appeared in just 23 games, averaging 6.4 minutes per game. The Thunder believed he would be best served gaining experience on the floor in the NBA Development League. He played 21 games with the Tulsa 66ers, logging 21.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Lamb admits his time in the D-League was beneficial to both his game and in building his confidence.
“It helped a lot,” he said. “Last year I wasn’t in the rotation, so I had to find a way to stay sharp and still be on the court. Put those drills that I’ve been doing in a game-like situation. Playing in the D-League did that for me. I think the D-League really benefited me in that area.
“Of course, during the season it got frustrating,” he continued. “But that inspired me to just work harder. Nobody wants to sit on the bench. I was just trying to do what I could to get off it. Everybody was telling me to wait my time, wait your turn. I’m waiting.”
“We’re excited about Jeremy and what he brings to our team,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “He’s a terrific scorer. He can make shots. My job is to find areas on the floor that he can continue to feel comfortable. This is only his second year – he’s 20 years old. He has a lot of areas that he’s going to improve on the next six or seven years with us.”
In fact, Lamb is 21 years old, but the point is the Thunder holds a clear picture of his future. They view him as a player who can potentially stick around and develop with the team. While Lamb hasn’t quite identified his role, he doesn’t see himself limited to solely the replacement for Kevin Martin.
“I’m going to try to fulfill the role of whatever coach wants me to do,” Lamb explained. “Not necessarily ‘I want to be this guy (or) I want to be that guy’. I just want to help the team win. If that’s coming in and playing defense or rebounding or scoring or whatever it is, I want to do that to help the team win. I’m not really thinking ‘I’ve got to be like him’ or ‘I’ve got be like that’. I’m just working hard, and everything will work out.”
Lamb was a standout in the Orlando Summer League just a couple months ago, averaging 18.8 points and 4.0 rebounds in four games. The tools are there. The versatile shooter has silky athleticism and explosiveness; hopefully he’s focusing on building strength. Lamb measures in at 6’5 in height with an impressive 6’11 wingspan and weighs just 180 pounds.
“Jeremy Lamb is looking great,” said Kevin Durant prior to the start of the preseason. “You can tell he’s been working.”
“All summer, we’ve been here and we’ve just been working, and that’s what it’s about,” Lamb shared. “Hard work pays off. Being able to help the guys that just came in just like they helped me when I first came in. They’re still helping me. That’s huge. We’ve been having some good workouts all summer.”
The Thunder traveled overseas to play their first two preseason games. It was a perfect opportunity to get a closer look at Lamb and possible schemes for him when the season begins. He was the first player off the bench in the first game at Istanbul versus Fenerbahce. Nerves were detectable, but he settled in and ended up with nine points (four-of-nine in field goals), five rebounds, four assists and two steals in 31 minutes. Lamb didn’t fare nearly as well during the second game in Manchester, England, against the Philadelphia 76ers. As a starter, he logged just seven points in nearly 40 minutes on the floor, adding four rebounds and two assists. Disappointingly, Lamb went 0-for-eight in three pointers and connected on two-of-12 in field goal shots.
Afterwards, Durant pointed out the positives in Lamb’s performance.
“Jeremy was great at spacing and finding the basketball,” he said. “It’s a learning experience for everybody, especially guys who don’t play a lot, like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones and Andre Roberson.”
When asked, prior to the announcement of Westbrook’s second surgery, if Lamb feels the Thunder needs him in the rotation, it sounded like he went into self-protection mode.
“I don’t really sense that there’s need,” Lamb said. “I just feel like they’ve seen me work hard, and they’ve been helping me get better and there’s a chance there that I will be used, so I don’t get the sense that I’m needed. I feel it’s going to be a good year.”
Things have changed now. With Westbrook sidelined, the Thunder needs Lamb to step up and contribute well in a rotation role. The young player says he’s been waiting around for his turn. It’s time to shine on one of the NBA’s premier teams. Lamb must shake off the nerves and capitalize on the scoring opportunities given to him. This is his chance to show he belongs at the highest level of basketball and can handle the expectations of increased playing time.