Jeremy Lamb's sophomore crash course

USA TODAY Sports

After learning the ropes as a rookie, Jeremy Lamb looks ready to step up for the Thunder next season.

Unlike most celebrated first-round picks, Jeremy Lamb didn't have an eventful rookie season. He played more minutes in UConn's tournament run to win the 2011 NCAA championship than he did in a full season with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

However, Lamb is in an important position this season. On a team hoping at the very least to tread water as a league heavyweight, a 20-year-old who spent last season starring for the Tulsa 66ers may be the difference between taking a step back or holding steady in the NBA elite.

Welcome to Lamb's world, where learning on the job means replacing a good player who replaced a great player, on a title contender featuring two of the best athletes on the planet. There are high expectations, and then there's what OKC needs from Lamb next season to win a title. He'll need to surpass the former to reach the latter.

Kevin Martin may not be James Harden, but there's no denying the offense he provided Oklahoma City last season. With him out of the picture, the responsibility effectively falls on Lamb to fill the gap however he can.

There aren't many people openly wondering why this isn't a bigger problem, but I think I have the answer. Just go spend an hour or two munching on some Lamb chops, watching some tape and reading the way people talk about this guy. Consider the pedigree, and how he dominated lesser players in the D-League precisely like a superior athlete should.

And then consider this: One of the best teams in the league, a team expecting to compete for a title, believes Lamb can be one of its most important players next season. They believe this guy can play. Now.

When some players are drafted, it's said that they're not ready. They're the type of prospects that need to be "groomed" for a future, one in which they're bigger, stronger and more prepared for the rigor of top-shelf basketball. Drafted 12th overall by the Rockets just over a year ago, Lamb was this kind of player.

But with Lamb, it always felt like he needed a different kind of grooming. Draft Express wrote this of Lamb before the draft: "His team's lack of success, poor on-court chemistry and his often apathetic demeanor will likely be concerns that NBA teams will want to further investigate."

From a physical standpoint, you could hardly ask for more from a shooting guard. And in retrospect, those pre-draft criticisms seem to pale in comparison to the praise. This was a premier guard prospect entering the draft, and you better believe Sam Presti thought the same thing when he plucked Lamb from Houston.

And then the last year happened. Whatever grooming Lamb needed upon entering professional basketball to reach his potential, it appears he's gotten it. Wherever the team has asked Lamb to go -- the D-League, Orlando Summer League -- he's often looked like the best player on the court.

In the D-League, he led Tulsa in scoring with 21 points per game on 49 percent shooting. In Orlando, he earned MVP honors by leading OKC's squad to the championship. Playing in the middle of nowhere, in front of middling crowds smaller than those he thrilled in college, Lamb dominated other players.

If the past year tested whether Lamb is actually apathetic about basketball, he passed with flying colors. Guys who don't care don't go out and play like that.

All of it makes the 6'5 guard look like someone ready to make his name in the NBA. In SB Nation's recent list of the top 100 NBA players of 2017, Lamb landed No. 50 thanks to resident draft guru Jonathan Tjarks. The selection got a befuddled response, perfectly reflecting a community that seems to be underestimating what he's capable of.

But it helps show why Lamb is ready to make some noise in 2013-14. Even though his brief stints with OKC last season were a mixed bag, the inconsistent roles and small sample size don't give us much to work with. It's easier to look at everything else and project hope.

Surely Scott Brooks would welcome it, but nobody is expecting Lamb to be a top-50 player within the next year. That's what Harden was, but Martin isn't on that level and OKC seemed just fine before the Russell Westbrook injury. Lamb doesn't need to be Harden, he just needs to match Martin.

But with Lamb, the beautiful thing is that he could be both Martin and Harden, at different points in his career. Next season, Lamb simply needs to be the former, a quality sixth man who can supplement the scoring load.

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