Jeremy Lamb must step up after barely playing last year

USA TODAY Sports

The centerpiece of the controversial James Harden trade was able to essentially redshirt last year, but with Kevin Martin gone, Jeremy Lamb needs to show some of the promise that made Sam Presti covet him in the first place.

The Oklahoma City Thunder's decision to trade James Harden four days before the start of last season seems destined to become the most scrutinized deal of its generation. The trade that spawned a million "What If?" columns happened because of a squabble over $2 million per year, a figure considered a paltry sum in the big money landscape of the NBA, but a burden too heavy to bear for the small-market Thunder.

Harden was dealt to Houston for a package headlined by shooting guard Kevin Martin and two first-round draft picks, a return many considered a small price for a star after Harden blew up as the focal point of the Rockets last season. But it was the inclusion of another former first-round pick in the trade that could make or break the deal for Oklahoma City.

Martin is off to Minnesota, but Jeremy Lamb is still with OKC. Martin's veteran presence allowed the Thunder to essentially redshirt Lamb last season in the D-League as a 20-year-old, but now the door is open for him to become a critical supplementary scoring option next to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, especially with the latter out for the first 4-6 weeks in the season. The Thunder need him to achieve their dreams.

Even though Lamb played just 6.4 minutes per game across 23 appearances last season, there's reason to believe he's up for the task. The No. 12 pick in the 2012 draft, Lamb has all the tools to be a damn good NBA shooting guard and help the Thunder break through in the NBA playoffs.

Lamb was one of the most buzzed about players in college basketball when he helped UConn win the national championship in 2011, riding shotgun alongside star Kemba Walker. He scored 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting to help the Huskies pull an upset against Kawhi Leonard and No. 2 San Diego State to reach the Elite Eight. Lamb would hit 11-of-15 three-pointers in regional play to get UConn to the Final Four, placing him squarely on NBA radars.

His next season at UConn didn't go as smoothly with Walker off to the NBA. Scouts questioned Lamb's killer instinct and openly wondered if he had what it takes to be an alpha dog.

Fortunately, that won't be a problem on the Thunder. With Durant and Westbrook carrying the majority of the scoring load, Lamb should be in his element in a complementary role. So long as he's scoring efficiently and spacing the floor, the Thunder will be pleased. That's all he's ever done.

Oklahoma City's bet on Lamb to salvage at least a bit of the Harden deal might seem questionable to some, but he certainly fits the profile of an NBA two-guard. Lamb is a lanky wing with good size (6'5), a huge reach (6'11 wingspan) and the ability to knock down jumpers from anywhere on the floor.

The adjective most often associated with Lamb's game entering the draft was "smooth." He has a good enough first step and ball-handling skills to create his own shot and isn't known to force his offense. UConn coach Jim Calhoun was fond of comparing Lamb to another one-time Huskies star, Richard Hamilton. It's an apt comparison and one that would pay major dividends for Oklahoma City if it pans out.

Lamb's shooting ability is what makes him so intriguing. Whether he's popping jumpers from mid-range or pulling up from three, he's proven himself to be an adept shooter in the halfcourt. Lamb shot over 48 percent from the field in college and made 117 three-pointers. His efficiency on threes waned as a sophomore, but it's because he was taking six attempts from deep per game. That certainly won't be the case in Oklahoma City.

Lamb did just about everything expected of him last year in the D-League. He averaged 21 points and 49 percent shooting from the field and 35 percent shooting from three over 21 games. The D-League was a test Lamb aced, no question. But now it's time to show what he can do on the biggest stage in the world.

The question is how close he'll come to replicating the production of the 30-year-old Martin in his first full NBA season. Martin's stats paled in comparison to what Harden did in Houston, but he was still a reliable third scoring option for a Thunder team that won the most games in the Western Conference. Martin averaged 14 points and shot 42.6 percent from three, though he wasn't much of a defender or playmaker.

Perhaps that's where Lamb can make up some ground. Still, to be viewed as the coup GM Sam Presti needs, he's going to have to shoot the ball well.

The Thunder don't need Lamb to be a fourth star; they just need him to be another reliable scoring option. The public perception might always be that OKC blew it with the Harden trade, but if Lamb pans out, the Thunder will still have more than enough to win the championship as early as this year. Can he do it?

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