The gamble in starting Jeremy Lamb was never about scoring. That skill had kept him in the NBA as a reserve for six seasons.
His ball-handling and decision-making were decent, too. The doubt when new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego contemplated this shift in the lineup was at the other end of the court.
“I think that was the biggest question I had: Could he defend on a top-level team’s starting unit,” Borrego said after a 126-94 home victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I give Nic (Batum) a lot of credit because he’s helping him. Nic has come out with a purpose defensively. That has helped Jeremy settle in. But he is busting his tail every single day; he knows his defensive assignments. It’s given me a much more comfortable rotation”
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Lamb, who scored a season-high 19 points Saturday, made a significant improvement last season to be the Hornets’ top reserve. To a great extent that growth was about applying himself defensively in the summer of 2017 in drills with then-Hornets lead assistant Stephen Silas.
Lamb dramatically changed the perception of then-head coach Steve Clifford. He took an even bigger step this fall when he won the starting shooting guard spot in training camp in Chapel Hill.
Borrego wanted more scoring options in his starting lineup. But the tradeoff in that plan would be moving Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to the second unit. Previously, Kidd-Giclchrist would start out drawing the toughest wing scorer as his defensive assignment, leaving the lesser shooting guard or small forward for Batum to defend.
With this change, which has so far worked out for both Lamb and Kidd-Gilchrist, Batum became the first option among starting wing defenders. But that still leaves a tough assignment for Lamb, who started Thursday’s game against Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook.
Batum said guarding the opposing team’s top wing scorer is what he regularly did his first seven NBA seasons as a Portland Trail Blazer.
“We know Jeremy and I have to do this now on a nightly basis,” Batum said. “In the (Thunder) game, they had two All-Stars (Westbrook and Paul George) so Jeremy had to guard a superstar.
“We talk a lot; that’s really the first time he’s been asked to do this his whole career.”
The Thunder traded Lamb to the Hornets (then-Bobcats) in June of 2015. It was anything but a blockbuster deal. The Thunder needed to free up a roster spot, so they were willing to take a second-round pick as compensation for Lamb, who three years earlier was the 12th overall pick in the draft.
Lamb had floated in and out of the Thunder’s rotation his first three seasons and looked like he might be a career backup as a Hornet. But then a new coach. looking for ways to take some offensive burden off star point guard Kemba Walker, decided to experiment: Make Kidd-Gilchrist sixth man and have him play mostly power forward, while asking a lot more of Lamb than had previously been expected at the NBA level.
“I’m just trying to compete, trying to make it tough” on those he guards, Lamb said. “Night after night, particularly at the (shooting) guard position, you’ve got to be ready to guard. I’ve been really working to try to keep getting better at both ends of the floor.
“Defense is something I really need to work on and I’ll keep working.”
The Hornets are still a long way from figuring all this out, but they got through the first 10 games with Borrego with a 5-5 record and the metrics are good: They are eighth among 30 NBA teams in net efficiency rating (offensive and defensive productivity per 100 possessions) and they are outscoring opponents on average by 7.6 points per game.
That doesn’t tell the whole story, in that much of that average margin is in a few blowout victories and they’ve won only one tight game (in Miami). But a .500 record is on track toward a playoff spot for the first time in three seasons. So the Lamb experiment so far has to be deemed a success.
“Just trying to be aggressive,” Lamb said. “Trying to get some things in transition and off ball movement.”
And continue being respectable on defense. Borrego’s big question might not be fully answered, but Lamb’s early grade is certainly passing.