The term veteran teammate Marvin Williams used Friday to describe Jeremy Lamb this preseason: “Want to.”
Now, that doesn’t mean Lamb was lethargic his prior six NBA seasons. Actually, the way he changed the previous Hornets coaching staff’s view of him last season was impressive.
The difference now, though, is the stakes for Lamb and how he is responding. For the first time the chance to start at the NBA level is there in more than a sporadic or fill-in manner. Friday’s preseason exhibition against the Boston Celtics was an audition for Lamb, and he responded as well as any player on this team.
Lamb scored a game-high 15 points in the Hornets’ 104-97 victory at the Smith Center. Fifteen points isn’t something that leaps off a box score, but Lamb’s efficiency was noteworthy: He made five of his eight shots overall and 3-of-5 from 3-point range. He also had four rebounds and three assists.
That’s productive in the 23 minutes Lamb played. It reinforced the impression Lamb has left with new coach James Borrego over the summer and throughout a three-day training camp in Chapel Hill.
“I liked his game. He was poised, he handled (the start) well and defensively I liked him.,” Borrego said. “So far, I like what I see.”
Who ends up starting at shooting guard is the most intriguing question of this Hornets preseason. Once Borrego decided to use Nic Batum primarily at small forward, Lamb and second-year player Malik Monk became the contenders for an open spot.
Lamb has more experience and at 6-foot-5 is 2 inches taller than Monk. Monk is an explosive scorer who arguably has the most unrealized potential on this roster.
Borrego didn’t have to choose between those two for Friday’s exhibition because Monk has a bruised pelvis that caused him to miss two of the practices this week. Monk could have played Friday, and probably would have if this was the regular season. But Borrego took the cautious route and didn’t have Monk in uniform.
Borrego said postgame Friday that Monk will test the injury Saturday and there is a good chance Monk will play Sunday in Boston in the rematch with the Celtics. This competition is far from over. I’m confident Monk will get plenty of opportunities before the regular-season opener Oct. 17 against the Milwaukee Bucks.
But what Lamb did Friday is make the first strike.
Lamb always had the ability. He was selected 12th overall in the 2012 draft following a college career at Connecticut that included helping now-teammate Kemba Walker win the 2011 national championship.
By Lamb’s own description, it took him several seasons to figure out what being a pro entails. Now he’s on a regimen to get plenty of sleep, to eat right, to cold-tub every day to stave off stiffness and injury. He had a breakthrough two summers ago, working daily with then-Hornets assistant Stephen Silas. A lot of that work was improving his defense such that it could somewhat match his natural offense.
That earned him steady minutes off the bench in Steve Clifford’s last season as Hornets coach. The impression he has since left on Borrego could make him an NBA starter, something he has called a lifelong dream.
“I want to be the best that I can be. I never take for granted my opportunities, I never take for granted each day that I get better,” Lamb said Friday.
“I just want to work. Whether it’s me starting or me coming off the bench, I want to be the best player I can be. Keep on working on my craft and do whatever this team needs me to do.”
The shooting/scoring is a given. What Borrego has liked up close, that he didn’t anticipate when he got this job in May, is Lamb’s defensive competence and his abilities as a facilitator, setting up others’ scoring opportunities.
It would be foolish to suggest Lamb has won the starting spot off one preseason exhibition. Monk was the 11th overall pick by the Hornets in the 2017 draft. There is a “Wow” factor about Monk’s game and an Alpha Male quality to his confidence that won’t go ignored.
I’d be surprised if Monk didn’t have one of those “Wow” games in the remaining four preseason exhibitions.
The difference, though, is that’s now obligatory if he wants to start. Because what Lamb did Friday was set the bar.