After a mostly forgettable rookie season, the second-year shooting guard has progressed tremendously in year two. For all we hear about Reggie Jackson or Kevin Durant making huge strides this season, Lamb may be the most improved player on the roster.
Last year, the 21-year-old almost never played. But only a season later, he's providing major minutes off the bench as the Thunder's premier reserve shooter.
Lamb is hitting 35 percent of his threes on 3.5 attempts per game, a massive jump in quality and volume from what we saw last year, when he only stepped out on the court 23 times all season.
Now, as the Thunder start to make their moves toward a title run, Lamb has to play a major part as the team's best three-point shooter off the bench. And his ability to continue improving might be one of the most essential cogs in Oklahoma City's title dreams.
The Lankest Lamb
Jeremy Lamb, the rookie, was so skinny. Too skinny. But he's always been that.
He was DJ Qualls scrawny when he assisted Kemba Walker in leading the UConn Huskies to an NCAA championship as a collegiate freshman. That's why he came back for a sophomore season, even after averaging 16.2 points per game during that tournament run.
Off-guards tend to develop in college similarly to how Lamb did.
He spent his freshman year mainly playing off the ball. Walker was the dribbler, the kid who controlled the entire offense, the one who took 18 shots a game and made the Madison Square Garden court seem like it was flooded with marbles. Gary McGhee, we send our condolences.
But then Walker left, and Lamb progressed.
In regards to ability, Lamb wasn't all that different as a sophomore than he was as a freshman. He was still that wiry scrag who slithered more than he ran. The change came more in style than in anything else.
Lamb handled the ball more. He created within the offense often.
He wasn't off the ball. He was on it like hair on a husky. But that wasn't necessarily the type of NBA player he was poised to become.
Adjusting to Style
One of the reasons so many off-guards struggle to make the transition from college to the NBA is less because of ability and more because of that regression in style. Lamb started college off the ball and worked his way into becoming a high-value ball-handling guard. But as soon as he entered the NBA, he had to go back to his former ways.
His talent didn't regress. His mind didn't regress. But his role did.
It's not about volume. Of course a featured collegiate player's usage will almost always go down in the NBA. All these guys were once stars, even the 15th men on any given team.
So it's not about adjusting to volume. It's just about adjusting to a new structure. Lamb didn't have to learn as a rookie. He had to relearn.
In his first NBA season, he got into just 23 games. He played just barely over 6.4 minutes a night. He spent 21 games with the Tulsa 66ers of the D-League.
He didn't hit many shots, and generally, he looked rawer than a beet-red filet mignon.
Body type has a way of affecting our perception of what we deem as "raw." Lamb, the rookie, was still such a stick figure, not yet a sheep. And the process of relearning didn't really show throughout the year.
Lamb played garbage time. He shared the floor with Kevin Durant only 12 minutes on the season. He played with Russell Westbrook for the same amount of negligible time, just 12 minutes. But when you trot out for fewer than four games worth of minutes on the entire season, those numbers tend to hide somewhere.
Fighting through screens arose as an issue. If a feather had to run constantly into concrete, it probably wouldn't make much of a dent no matter how many times it rammed itself into the stone block. But this year, even though he still weighs in at just 180 pounds, we're starting to learn that a smooth-as-wool Lamb may be able to play with his current body type.
Now, we're seeing Lamb work in a less physical brand of basketball. His off-ball movement has improved. His general understanding of how to control a defense without the basketball, which was not close to top-notch last year, has gotten better.
He still needs to continue his upward trajectory. Let's not go about calling him Richard Hamilton just yet. But with the sneaky off-ball strategies Lamb has used to get himself open this season, he's started to show that his lighter-than-a-paperweight body type may not be much of an issue.
Lamb's first-year stint in the D-League was typical. But in some ways, that was a problem.
The NBA's use of the D-League is still confusing in some ways. The league continues to promote that strange stigma of amateurism for players who just so happen to get paid. And the language only furthers those sentiments.
So-and-so got "sent down" to the Tulsa 66ers. Player X got "demoted" to the Main Red Claws.
It's the sort of deprecation that fosters this unproductive environment, which leads to plenty of teams being too afraid to send their young prospects down to the D-League. But it doesn't have to be like that.
Teams could use the D-League wonderfully by sending players down as developmental tools and not as punishment or for more minutes, but the stigma—that darn stigma—ruins so much.
It's why Anthony Bennett hasn't gotten the chance to play more and improve his game at a lower level. It's why teams don't send injured players down for rehab stints, MLB-style. And the mismanagement has a detrimental trickle-down effect on the rest of the league.
Over the years, the D-League has earned the reputation of the place that tremendous athletes without basketball skill go to try to force their ways into the NBA. The league has a particularly fast-paced style, one with tons of dunks, threes and transition.
Some teams, like the Houston Rockets or San Antonio Spurs, use their D-League teams responsibly. They send the Corey Josephs of the world up and down the NBA elevator depending on playing-time opportunities. They use their affiliate teams to experiment with new basketball strategies, like to learn the effects of shooting a colossally exorbitant amount of threes.
The Thunder actually do fall into that category. They're probably one of the most willing teams in the NBA to use the D-League for exactly what it's full name would imply: development. But there is one distinct mismanagement that we still continue to see.
When the Spurs send Joseph down, they keep him in a similar role to the one he would play in the Spurs offense. Lamb, though, went down to the D-League and took over as a high-usage ball-handler.
Lamb found statistical success in his 21 NBDL games last season, averaging 21.0 points per game on 49-35-88 percent shooting in his time with the 66ers. But his roles across league levels weren't consistent.
Look, Lamb was the best player on that Tulsa team. There wasn't much doubt about that. But as a late-lottery pick serving in his first pro season, he wasn't fully ready to contribute at the NBA level.
The Thunder knew Lamb's future consisted of the type of offense he has produced this season: lots of playing off the ball and waiting on catch-and-shoot and/or spot-up opportunities. But when Lamb went to Tulsa, he didn't fill that role.
He was the best player on the team, so it would seem mere intuition that the 66ers should let him dribble lots, make decisions and try to become a conventionally successful "star" in that sense. But realistically, that's not the sort of role Lamb needed to play.
Why send a future off-ball player to develop and then have him play with the ball? If you're simply worried about minutes and playing time, why not let Lamb play his 30 minutes a night running off screens waiting for D-Leaguers to get him the rock?
Sure, systems aren't as strong in the D-League and teammates clearly aren't as heady, but isn't there something to be said for consistency? If the whole point of the D-League is to develop, then why not let players evolve in the roles in which their teams want to put them?
Lamb came back from the D-League late last year, and he wasn't ready to play. It was almost like he lost a year of development, and it wasn't because of the D-League inherently. It was because of misuse.
This year, though, he's finally starting to fit into the niche he should've been in for some team all of last season.
Fitting a Role
It's hard for an NBA player to find success when he barely sees the floor. So much of basketball is about finding a rhythm, hitting a groove and maintaining it for a sustained period of time. Last season, there was nothing sustainable about Lamb's NBA role.
Scott Brooks played him far more as a small forward than anyone could've expected. But again, Lamb didn't see any congruence in his game-to-game role last season. And that made it hard for him to become any sort of contributor as a rookie.
This year, Lamb is seeing the majority of his 21.6 minutes per game as a shooting guard. And all of a sudden, the off-ball game is starting to look like what we saw from him as a refined freshman in Storrs.
The decisions are easier; the plays are smoother. 42.5 percent of Lamb's shots have been in catch-and-shoot opportunities, according to MySynergySports (subscription required). Throw him in that sort of position and it makes everything so much simpler.
Lamb doesn't have to make decisions. Instead, they tend to be made for him. He can shoot or he can swing the ball around the perimeter, but aside from some occasions when Scott Brooks will let him run a pick-and-roll with the second unit, you're not seeing much dribbling, and that makes life so much easier.
Lamb's game is now about quick, simplistic decisions. There's no burden for him to carry. Now, he can just relax and worry about creating a shot for himself without the ball in his hands.
As a rookie, he sometimes looked lost on the offense end. Lost about what he should be doing. Lost about where to find empty space within a defense.
But now, Lamb is starting to find those holes to open him up off the ball. He's learning how to move. It's happening.
Lamb is all about the spot-up jumper, a facet of the game the Thunder have desperately needed all season. Just look at the efficiency we've seen from his shot selection this season. More than 40 percent of his shot attempts have been threes, and he's still hitting 35 percent of those.
Oklahoma City needs that accuracy considering the shooting struggles it's had on the wings all season. There's a reason the team pounced on Caron Butler as if it were John Sears trying to court Kelly Taylor. And Butler might be even more dated than Beverly Hills 90210 itself.
Lamb's reliability has opened up the Thunder second unit. And now that Russell Westbrook is back from injury and Reggie Jackson has returned to running the offense with the reserves, the spacing Lamb provides becomes even more essential.
Jackson loves going to the hoop, and now, he actually has someone to kick out to for shots. Someone not named Kevin Durant.
Slump or Trend?
February, when Lamb shot just 35 percent from the field and 30 percent from three, was really the first subpar month of the year for Lamb. Ultimately, though, defenses haven't really adjusted to his style.
Maybe he's hit some sort of wall. Maybe he's gotten a little tired as the season has worn on. Or maybe it's merely an extended slump.
His shot looks the same. His movement looks the same. His looks are just as open. The ball just isn't going in as much.
Shooting trends like that tend to correct themselves over the course of a season. There are always ebbs and flows throughout the year. And Lamb is hardly exempt from that.
For now, though, the Thunder can continue to have confidence in their second-year shooting guard, because in the end, he's the best shooter they have on their bench.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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