Jeremy Lamb: The Charlotte Hornets’ Unsung Hero

Nov 10, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb (3) against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Target Center. The Hornets defeated the Timberwolves 104-95. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Jeremy Lamb was undervalued from the start.

Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Al Jefferson; that’s who it’s always been about.

Coming into the season, the aforementioned trio was deemed the Charlotte Hornets “Big Three” by most. There were a few who (rightfully) predicted Nicolas Batum to have a major impact on this team as well, but for the most part, fans were excited and hopeful for strong play from Walker, Jefferson, and MKG.

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And now, two weeks into the season, those three have been collectively underwhelming. Kidd-Gilchrist was shut down for what will likely be the season just a few weeks before it started, and Jefferson and Walker have both been wildly inconsistent, unable to put together a string of consecutive good games.

Walker is 16-for-53 in his last four contests, and before Charlotte’s win over Portland, Jefferson had failed to reach double figures in the scoring column for three straight games.

Yet somehow, the Hornets stay afloat.

Now at 5-5, Charlotte has looked much better in its recent showings, despite the lack of production from its alleged stars. Batum has deservedly been given much of the credit, but Charlotte’s bench production has been a staple of success this season. The second-unit group, averaging 39.3 points per game, is headlined by a 23-year-old capitalizing on the best opportunity of his career.

Nov 10, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb (3) dunks over Minnesota Timberwolves center Gorgui Dieng (5) during the third quarter at Target Center. The Hornets defeated the Timberwolves 104-95. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s good to have you, Jeremy Lamb.

Lamb was acquired by Charlotte early in the summer in a low-profile deal with Oklahoma City in return for Luke Ridnour — who decided to sit out the season after being traded four times in six days — and a 2016 second-round pick.

The Thunder’s front office has been hailed for its ability to recognize and develop young talent, but Lamb was unable to convince the team during his three-year tenure that he was a valuable piece to have on the roster.

Despite the injuries of both Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook over the course of the past three years, Lamb was unable to carve out a niche in Scott Brooks‘ rotation before he was traded away. Still, his history doesn’t mean much in this new situation with Charlotte, and the move to add him has paid dividends for this Hornets team, fighting for a playoff spot.

Lamb has been an absolute stud on both ends of the floor, rightfully giving him the title of Charlotte’s Sixth Man of the Year (and maybe eventually the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year, too). A stat line of 13.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists per contest doesn’t do Lamb justice; his efficiency has been off the charts.

Lamb’s stellar offense

He currently sports a Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 22.43, a mark that’s good for 25th in the entire NBA, and one that puts him well ahead of the league average of 15.00. Lamb leads all shooting guards in field goal percentage (.554) and is tied for 13th among all two-guards in three-point percentage (.395).

Per 48 minutes, Lamb’s scoring average (27.2 PPG) leaves him in the top-30 league-wide, and eighth among shooting guards. He’s putting up big scoring numbers as the first option off the bench, and doing it with crazy efficiency.

Really, it’s hard to not be excited by Lamb’s strong play. He’s not only put up numbers, but he’s displayed the unique skillset that made him a lottery pick back in 2012, and one of the cornerstone pieces in the deal for James Harden. Lamb came into the league with a polished scoring touch, coupled with a 6-foot-11 wingspan (he stands at just 6-foot-5), and a 38-inch max vertical.

Those tools, combined with a good feel for the game, allow him to make plays like this:

His shot selection has been a knock since he came into the league, but he’s been picking his spots well this year. Of the 92 shots he’s taken this season, 38 of them have been from the three-point line (per Basketball Reference), a healthy mark for someone with a deadly outside stroke.

Twenty-four of his attempts have been at the rim, where he’s converting shots at a ridiculous 87.5 percent clip. The midrange, low-efficiency shots (locations that typically equate to a low number of points per attempt) that Lamb has loved to take throughout his career have only comprised 13 percent of his total looks, but he’s still converted 58 percent of them.

Bottom line: his offense has been good. Off-the-charts good.

But, then again, offense is only one half of the game.

What about the D?

Lamb has always been knocked for playing unengaged, but the fresh $21 million extension that was handed to him at the beginning of the season seemed to get his engine going again. As a great athlete, he’s always had tremendous defensive upside, but still hasn’t ever been considered an elite defender.

Well, the eye test has pointed to Lamb stepping up his defense this year, and the numbers only reinforce that notion: Lamb is holding his opponents to 32 percent shooting overall, which is — on average — 14.2 percentage points lower than the shooter’s normal field goal percentage.

On shots within 10 feet of the basket, the field goal percentage difference has been a net minus-25.9, and on shots within six feet, it’s been minus-30.3 percent. It goes without saying that these are elite defensive numbers, and speak volumes to Lamb’s efficacy when engaged, even on the less glamorous end of the floor.

The ‘what’ in ‘so what?’

But really, while all of these stats are impressive on their own, none of them matter if they don’t translate to success for the team as a unit.

They do, of course.

Lamb has been key in shifting momentum in the Hornets’ favor this year, and when he’s on the money (which he has been, for the most part), it’s contagious. In team wins, Lamb is a plus-14.4 on average. He’s shooting 70.6 percent from the floor in wins, and posting 16.2 points per game.

Team losses mirror Lamb’s play as well: in the four L’s he’s played in, Lamb has put up just 9.8 points per contest and shot 36.6 percent from the field. He’s also been a minus-13.8.

It’s been a tale of two different players, and two different teams:

Lamb lives and dies as the team does, indicative of his impact on the club, even coming off the bench. It’s exciting to see that Lamb’s production hasn’t been empty, considering he’s believed to be a part of Charlotte’s long-term future. At the very least, the Hornets have him locked up for three more seasons.

He could easily play his way into the starting lineup during that time, perhaps as early as the second half of this season.

Charlotte has a good amount of momentum now after notching five wins in its last seven games, and Lamb has stepped up and solidified himself as the leader of the second-unit. A high ceiling for Lamb — one that he hasn’t even come close to reaching — gives fans something to look forward to.

If he keeps playing this way, he’s going to have himself a fruitful and lengthy career. Expect big things from the 23-year-old kid, who has already gone from afterthought to budding star.