Losing Nic Batum for another big slice of this season (he re-injured his left elbow Wednesday night) would be a significant hit for the Charlotte Hornets.
However, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe. Jeremy Lamb demonstrated against the Washington Wizards he’s more than ready for whatever is next.
Batum missed the second half of a 129-124 overtime victory, after suffering a contusion on the same joint he severely injured in the preseason. Batum tore an elbow ligament Oct. 4 and sat out six weeks before playing again. Had Batum required surgery, he likely would have been out for the season.
The Hornets won’t be able to gauge the severity of this new injury at least until late Thursday. The Hornets aren’t practicing Thanksgiving Day, but will fly to Cleveland for Friday’s game against the Cavaliers.
Batum, the starting shooting guard, is a key piece in the 8-9 Hornets’ offense. The ball movement immediately improves with his presence. Lamb is more of a scorer, but he also is versatile, as illustrated by Wednesday’s box score: He finished with 24 points on 9-of-17 shooting, plus five assists and five rebounds.
Plus-minus can be a dubious statistic, but against the Wizards the Hornets were a plus-26 in points during Lamb’s 37 minutes. He greatly impacted the outcome.
Lamb started the first 12 regular-season games before Batum’s return. He averages 16 points and it’s conceivable he belongs in the discussion for NBA Most Improved Player. Hornets coach Steve Clifford saw this coming over the summer when Lamb, entering his sixth NBA season, was as committed to the off-season program as any Hornet.
Clifford had dinner with Lamb at the end of last season to reinforce how Lamb had improved after the All-Star break in February. Lamb changed his diet and sleeping habits and all but lived at the Spectrum Center practice gym with associate head coach Stephen Silas.
“I think he’ll tell you he didn’t even realize how well he had played,” late last season, Clifford said. “I think he has been better than that (this season), but this has been a gradual improvement.
“I just think there’s nothing more important in anything you do than feeling good about it and being confident. The best way to feel good about it is to put a lot of hard work in, and that’s what he’s done.”
Coincidentally, the opposing coach Wednesday was Scott Brooks, who coached Lamb his first few seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Lamb didn’t get steady minutes back then, and Brooks mentioned why with a bit of humor pre-game.
As Brooks described, when a 6-foot-5 player weighs less than his 6-foot coach, he doesn’t stand much chance against NBA veterans.
Lamb was painfully thin coming out of college at Connecticut. Reflecting on that Wednesday, he said he wasn’t strong enough either to defend opposing shooting guards or to create his own shot.
The trade to the Hornets three summers ago was a fresh start, but it wasn’t an instant solution.
"I definitely needed time to develop and work on my game," Lamb said. "I still have to work on my body. I still have a lot to work on."
One of this team’s strengths is the work culture. It’s Clifford’s mantra, and vets Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marvin Williams reinforce that message each time a new player arrives.
Walker played with Lamb at Connecticut. Walker is proud of, but not surprised by, how Lamb has matured in this locker room.
“He changed,” Walker said. “Starting off, it was about his mindset. The way we work, the way we go about things here: The culture has changed him. He wasn’t like that when he first got here.”
The dividends of that change were all over that box score Wednesday.