In his three-year career, Jeremy Lamb has been too inconsequential to be a disappointment. His career averages of seven points on 42 percent from the field show just how unremarkable he’s been. It’s not shocking when late lottery picks don’t pan out, but as one of the pieces the Thunder got for James Harden, there was a brief period of time in which more was expected of him. That moment has apparently passed and no one bat an eye when Oklahoma City salary dumped him to Charlotte.
The trade to the Hornets, however, is the best thing that could’ve happened to Lamb. It’ll give him one last chance to prove he’s actually the player many projected him to be coming out of UConn. It won’t be easy, but Lamb can still salvage his career after seemingly being on a path leading him out of the league.
Lamb’s outlook wasn’t always this gloomy. After a lost rookie season, he played almost 20 minutes per game off the bench for the Thunder and put up mediocre numbers that nonetheless could’ve served as a foundation to build upon. Before the All-Star break in that 2013-14 season, Lamb was actually good, averaging 10 points on 45 percent shooting to go with solid rebounding and assist numbers. His 36 percent from outside wasn’t what anyone expected from someone who projected as a knockdown shooter, but Lamb was on his way to becoming a good role player, the prototypical 3-and-D wing.
Alas, it was all a mirage. Lamb’s numbers collapsed late in the season and his role was severely reduced in the playoffs. He completely lost the trust of the coaching staff and barely played this past season despite constant injury trouble to the Thunder’s perimeter players. His lack of competitive fire and desire to improve would’ve ended his career if not for his physical attributes and untapped potential.
That’s what makes his trade to the Hornets such an interesting development. Outside of Oklahoma City and the expectations that came with, in a way, replacing Harden, we’ll get to see if Lamb is actually an NBA player or the result of the modern obsession with wingspan and athleticism over skills and motor. There are no more excuses for the 23-year-old shooting guard. He’ll either emerge as a rotation piece or fade into obscurity. If that doesn’t motivate him, nothing will.
The atmosphere that permeates the Hornets is perfect for him as well. He’ll share the court with former college teammate Kemba Walker and will have to respond to the demanding Steve Clifford, who managed to build a good defense with Al Jefferson on the court by holding everyone accountable. The pressure won’t be anything close to what it was in Oklahoma City and the direct competition for a playoff spot not as accomplished. It’ll be as close to a college environment as it gets for someone who has struggled since turning pro.
On the court he’ll have to fight for minutes with P.J. Hairston and Jeff Taylor, two flawed wings with checkered pasts who are talented enough to challenge him without being superior enough to relegate him to the end of the bench. Lamb is a much better shooter than both and has the potential to be a better defender as well. He’ll likely start preseason as the team’s first perimeter player off the bench and won’t have to dread a quick hook from his coach.
Few players get a second chance with the odds stacked so clearly in their favor. The Hornets didn’t trade anything of value for him, so there are no expectations. Average production will be such an upgrade over what Hornets got from Lance Stephenson last season that it’s almost impossible for Lamb to truly fail. The only one who can get in his way is himself. And yet it’s hard to discount that possibility.
Anyone who has seen Lamb flash moments of potential before going back to playing lethargic, apathetic ball knows that while the talent is there, the mindset to be successful might not be. Lamb has already made some money and will get another contract on his youth and pedigree alone, like many unmotivated but gifted athletes before him. But if he doesn’t have it in him to want a long career as a legitimate contributor, it doesn’t matter where he is or who his teammates are.
There will be plenty of more interesting storylines going on in Charlotte than how Lamb fares next season. The future of the franchise could be determined by the bold move to trade for Nicolas Batum and the stubbornness to select Frank Kaminsky despite enticing offers to trade the pick.
The situation with Lamb will entertain only a subset of fans who always thought he could be more than he’s been. That group is getting smaller by the day and it might include NBA general managers, so this is truly Lamb’s last chance to be more than a footnote on a trade that changed the league.