A short few games into the Charlotte Hornets’ season, James Borrego pulled Jeremy Lamb aside to talk.
Why haven’t you been a starter in this league?
Together, the first-year head coach and former UConn standout discussed the topic at length, identifying specific areas and reasons as to why that was.
I believe you can be if you want to be.
The question Borrego posed was a fair one. Lamb is in his seventh year in the league. As the 12th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft, there were high hopes for the Huskies sophomore to transition seamlessly into the professional ranks.
It wasn’t quite as cut and dry as some may have thought it would be.
The Houston Rockets picked him in that draft, but it wasn’t long before they sent Lamb to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the infamous James Harden trade, mere days before the season began.
During his three-year stint with the Thunder, Lamb showed plenty of flashes of what he could become at this level. However, with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in front of him, among others, his chances to do so were sporadic.
“Everybody’s road is different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Me, when I first got in the league, I was playing behind All-Stars. I wasn’t in a position to play at that time. I wasn’t big enough to play.”
Knowing the situation he was in, Lamb made it a priority to soak up all the advice and information he could. Oklahoma City’s roster was loaded with “the greatest players in the game” when it came to veteran leadership.
Guys like Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison—along with Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha—guided Lamb every day he was there. The Thunder coaching staff kept him motivated to stay ready.
In the summer of 2015, Oklahoma City traded Lamb to the Hornets. He quickly signed a contract extension after the deal was made and has been with the franchise since.
When the move happened, Lamb knew his time was coming. All of those lessons he learned from the vets were going to pay off, and he took them with him in the next step of his career.
“All the stuff they told me, I lived by that and it stuck with me,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Just trying to get better every year, just trying to never be satisfied, trying to work on my weaknesses, trying to keep working on the things I was good at. I don’t know, just trying to stay focused and be the best player that I can be.”
One month into year seven as a pro, Lamb has secured a role with the starting five in Charlotte. And while he has started games in the past, things are different this time.
He’s looked more confident when he’s been out on the court. He’s getting into the paint at a high rate. He’s shooting a career-high three-point percentage.
And the most encouraging part of his game that’s improved? The defensive focus.
“Being a starting two-guard in the league is not easy,” Borrego said. “You gotta guard every single night, can’t take a night off. So I give him a lot of credit. He’s grown up a lot this season. I’m proud of him and I think he’s growing every single game.”
When asked why it’s taken Lamb longer than others to adapt to the NBA, the answer wasn’t an easy one to give for Borrego. It could be as simple as opportunity or a different type of learning curve, but there is no singular reason.
“It takes time,” Borrego said. “It just takes time to grow and mature and learn the game and figure out who you are and where you fit in this league. Sometimes it takes one year, two years and obviously here he is, seven years in, and he has his opportunity now.
Asking Lamb the same thing directly, he believes it comes down to applying the knowledge he’s gained and taking it year by year. While acknowledging that some in his draft class may have grown up at a fast rate, the 26-year-old also pointed out the chunk of players who are no longer a part of the association.
“Am I just getting comfortable in the league? I’m not just getting comfortable, but with every year you get more comfortable, more experience,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. More years, you know how the league is, you know how things go. So I’m not just now getting comfortable, but I get more and more comfortable every year for sure. It’s a blessing to be able to be in my seventh year.
“Nobody, including myself, thought that I would be in the league this long. And it’s just been a huge blessing and I’m trying to take advantage of it.”
Looking at Lamb’s success, it’s gone hand-in-hand with the new system Borrego has implemented. The Hornets are playing smart and defending well, and the players are buying in.
“Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to keep working,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders of his success. “Take what the defense gives me. I play off of Kemba [Walker]. They converge on him, I just try to knock down the shot.
“I think he really put [an] emphasis on threes and getting to the rim, and I feel like getting to the rim, good things happen. That’s one thing about his system. He really caters it to getting to the rim. So that’s why we’re getting more threes, we’re getting to the free throw line, we’re getting a lot of points in the paint, getting out in transition. It’s good.”
As per usual, Walker is on a tear, averaging over 26 points and getting up a team-high 10 threes per game for the first time in his career. He’s leading the Hornets on the floor and in the box scores. It’s almost as if the locker room should be endorsing the KeM-VP campaign.
“I think he is,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “He been playing at that level right now and the sky’s the limit for him. That’s funny you say KeM-VP. That’s hilarious. But all his hard work is paying off. He’s been playing great and it’s been fun to watch.”
As one of the brighter young minds in the NBA, Borrego, a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant and one-time Orlando Magic interim head coach, has brought a palpable liveliness and enthusiasm to the Hornets this year.
“It’s definitely been different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a new energy. Everything is different. I think we’ve adjusted well to the new system and [are] playing well.”
Borrego doesn’t necessarily think that there was a chemistry issue before he arrived. He and his staff only had one goal, and that was to make sure the guys on the roster played a selfless brand of basketball.
“When you have a healthy culture, when you have guys that believe in each other, like being around each other, they trust each other, they’re unselfish—I’ve seen what that does for a team,” Borrego said. “And it’s not always easy to change that.”
Attending Charlotte’s shoot-arounds in the past, at least from this writer’s perspective, you’d rarely hear the team as engaged as it was Tuesday morning in Cleveland.
Before media availability, curtains are closed and practices are private for the road team. But these guys were counting in unison as they battled each other in a team vs. team three-point contest.
It was the first to five or ten in each matchup. In the process, you could hear how much of a blast it was for everybody involved.
“These players are like, they’re kids,” Borrego said. “They get into it. They love it. They’re competitive. And that’s kind of the way to get them going in the morning. They don’t want to hear me talk about Cleveland or shoot-around or this or that.
“This group is really having fun this year. They’re excited. They like playing with each other. They like playing for one another. They like competing against each other in these games. So we believe we have a healthy locker room right now and a healthy group out there.”
A mixture of age groups on the roster could be a big reason why. Lamb thinks that the older guys who have been there and done that can help the youth develop. By the same token, those younger players provide the energy to practices and in the games, which can give the veterans a boost.
Lamb was approached with the term, “loose” to describe the mood of the team. He disagrees with that, but he senses the togetherness.
“We try to have fun,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know it’d be that much smiling at shoot-around because people be wanting to be in their bed. But no, we definitely try to make the most out of it. Every time we get, we try to get better.”
During Borrego’s time in San Antonio, he got to coach a man in a similar predicament. His name was Patty Mills, and, as we know, he’s turned into one of the most reliable players in this league for Gregg Popovich.
“He earned it,” Borrego said. “He grew over time and figured out his role in this league and he’s established himself.”
Now at the head of the ship in Charlotte, Borrego sees a similar path for Lamb.
“He’s not going anywhere,” Borrego said. “This is a guy that believes he belongs. He believes he can be a starter now, and I expect him to only grow from here.
“Once you get a taste of being a starter, you want to stay a starter, you want to keep that mentality—stay hungry, stay focused. So he has that ability to do that.”