He was struck by the same problem that, a few years ago, could have put a cap on his NBA career. Jeremy Lamb just couldn't get it going.
It was late November, and the Charlotte Hornets were down one point in a nailbiter against the Cleveland Cavaliers. A 38 percent three-point shooter on the season, Lamb was 4-of-15 on the night and had missed four of his five deep attempts.
But in the final moments, he was given an opportunity to render his earlier struggles meaningless. More importantly, he had the chance to get the Hornets even. A win would have been their fourth straight, given them a .500 record, and it would have come with an even more elusive badge of honor: a victory against the Eastern Conference champs.
Kemba Walker, Charlotte's crunch-time impresario, was being smothered by LeBron James, but Cavs shooting guard J.R. Smith couldn’t stick as closely to Lamb’s 6’5” frame. Lamb snuck above the break. Smith dove into the paint. Walker swung the ball to Lamb.
With four seconds remaining, and Smith approaching, Lamb had only one option: Let it fly.
It felt rushed. Like he was one step beyond his comfort zone. Like he wasn't ready. Like he was stepping into a moment that had never belonged to him. But, in that moment, the team's best player had entrusted him with the ball and with the responsibility. The shot caromed off the rim. Cleveland escaped with a win.
The moment was disappointing, but only in the absence of perspective. There was a time Lamb couldn't have imagined taking a go-ahead shot to win the game, when every missed shot could have been his last opportunity. By the end of his three-year tenure with the Oklahoma City Thunder, who acquired him in 2012, the only fourth-quarter minutes he saw were in garbage time.
It was never supposed to be this complicated for Lamb. He could have been one-and-done, being drafted in the same class with Walker, his then-and-current teammate. Together, they led UConn to the 2011 national championship. But Lamb opted to stay, and the pressure of being the No. 1 option wore on him. He was still drafted by the Rockets as a late-lottery pick after his sophomore season, becoming a key piece in the trade that sent James Harden to Houston. It threatened, after three inconsistent years with the Thunder, to be his sole claim to NBA significance.
"There were times I felt like I was almost out the league," Lamb admitted, reflecting on his time as a member of the Oklahoma City Thunder. "I don't know my exact lowest point, but I was up and down from the D-League. I was on the bench for three years. It was real tough during that time."
A player who today is averaging 15.9 points per game on a team in the playoff hunt, a lanky 25 year old with a smooth jumper and delayed development that hints at a world of upside, could have easily slipped through the NBA's cracks.
But then he was traded to Charlotte.
"He was really looking for a role, looking to part of a team's plan right away. He was kinda searching," Stephen Silas, a Hornets assistant coach who works closely with Lamb, recalls. "We needed that scorer off the bench at the two position."
"There was a need that he could fill."
But opportunity, it turns out, isn't everything. Lamb's upward trajectory since his arrival in Charlotte, head coach Steve Clifford and Silas insist, has been accompanied by a consistent increase in his work ethic.
“He's the product of hard work and having a great attitude.” said Clifford. “Shocking, right?
“If you look at his strength level, his body and his game, he's really just made gradual improvements in every area,” he continued.
In the early going of the 2014-2015 season, Lamb had a chance to make an impression in Oklahoma City. With Kevin Durant still on the mend from a broken foot, the Thunder’s starting shooting guard, Andre Roberson, sprained his foot and had to miss eight games. Lamb, who had yet to play a minute that season, found himself thrust into the starting lineup. He responded with occasional scoring torrents that eventually became rarer and rarer. He was scrawny, easy to overpower defensively, and a spot-up shooter that lacked the stamina to be consistent. When Roberson returned, Lamb came off the bench. Five games into Durant's return, Lamb was phased out of the rotation yet again.
Some players are born ready. Others grow into their abilities and responsibilities. Lamb couldn't envision himself in a key role in Oklahoma City, so he wasn't prepared for it. The operating cliche for every rotation player that gets inconsistent minutes, of course, is “stay ready.“ But even among the world's most single-minded and competitive people, things aren't that simple. It's hard to keep doing your homework when the teacher never checks it. In a league where “process over results” has morphed from a marketing pitch for one team into a leaguewide ethos, it's important to remember that imparting that wisdom to twenty-year-olds is not always easy.
"Coaches get credit for a lot of things," Clifford said. ‘You helped develop this guy.’ Here's the thing about playing really well in this league. It always starts and ends with the player. When you play 82 games, it's not about motivational speeches or bringing them out and talking to them. If you're not self-motivated, and if you don't get into a routine and work at it, which is what he's done, it's hard to play well."
Lamb himself admits that it was harder to stay focused when he couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel. After getting spot minutes his first season in Charlotte in 2015-2016, Lamb upped his game that offseason. The overall results next season were a mixed bag, but he improved as the season went along.
"His per-36 minutes numbers last year were quite a bit better in the last 26 games than they were in the first 56,” said Clifford.
The Hornets rewarded Lamb with a three-year, $21 million contract extension. He responded with his most regimented offseason to date.
"I tried to start being in bed at a reasonable time, and get a good night's rest rather than staying up all night," Lamb said. "Just trying to eat right. I'm still not 100 percent healthy when I'm eating but I try to eat more salmon, grilled chicken, try to eat more vegetables, more fruit."
He went full throttle in the weight room, bulking up in a summer many NBA players seemed to spend slimming down, determined not be bumped out of the lane or exploited one-on-one any longer.
"I think him seeing that success at that point in the season propelled him into this past summer," says Silas.
— FOX Sports: Hornets (@HornetsOnFSSE) December 2, 2017
That's Mr. Lamb, if you're nasty. #BuzzCity pic.twitter.com/Lz4d2GTZ6R
Lamb's improvement flies in the face of the notion that role players tend to rest on their laurels after landing a big contract. Sure, there are plenty of examples to hold that theory up, but everybody's different. Some people thrive in order more than they do chaos. Lamb needed certainty. He needed structure. He needed a home.
Right now, the Hornets are 8-13, three games back of the playoffs. They are 16 points per 100 possessions worse when Walker sits, both a testament to him and how desperate Charlotte is for shot creation when he’s out, especially with Nicolas Batum working himself back from an elbow injury. The Hornets need Lamb's scoring off the bench. They need his consistency. They need him, eventually, to hit those game-winning shots. The same way he needed them to let him take it.
A Sideline Story
Karl Anthony-Towns has a litany of reasons to wish he wasn't in the spotlight right now. After two seasons as the golden boy of the NBA, the potential-seekers have come to collect, and they're not happy. Why haven't the projected defensive improvements come to fruition? Why hasn’t he turned into a dominant offensive force like Kristaps Porzingis or Joel Embiid?
And, well, folks, I'm not writing this to ease the burden. Add another question to the list: Does Towns have the most inefficient stride in the world? Seriously, he constantly looks like he’s running for the subway but trying to avoid human obstacles.
For a guy who can double as a ballet dancer in the paint and finish with a shooter's touch on any side of the court, in traffic no less, he is an egregiously graceless runner, and screen-setter.
KAT will go down in history as the most athletic player to ever have mannerisms that remind you of your grandpa pic.twitter.com/GlXhNRmHMl— Seerat Sohi (@DamianTrillard) November 9, 2017
This looks like a man who spent a lifetime leaning down to be at level height with his peers.
Maybe I’m off base here. Maybe Towns has spent hours under the tutelage of a P3 conditioner and its motion analysis determined that sprinting around like an imitation of an inflatable tube-man was the best way for him to achieve peak performance.
After all, Towns is one of the few unique, shifty seven-footers in the NBA to not find himself set back by a major injury (knock on wood).
In the likely scenario that this isn’t the case, here’s some advice: Stand up straight. Arms shoulder-width apart, catapulting up as the opposite leg takes a stride forward, and so on.
Or perhaps, perhaps, I could work on improving my posture before correcting somebody else’s. But that’s as likely to happen as Towns is to read this.