By Michael Pina
The Oklahoma City Thunder are a title contender fenced in by a few concerning questions. Are they too reliant on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook? Is the offense capable of evolving in the playoffs? Why does Kendrick Perkins play so often, and why hasn't a fan kidnapped him yet?
One of the less considered questions is "Who is Jeremy Lamb?" His surprising impact on the team could be larger than previously expected.
Lamb isn't the first basketball player you think of when Oklahoma City is discussed. He isn't the second or third, either. But then again, why would he be? Five Thunder average more minutes, and four hold a higher usage rate.
So why is he important? The 21-year-old has size, length, touch, and half-dozen other characteristics that correlate with All-Star caliber wing play, and for the 20 or so minutes he's out there every night, Lamb plays with unassuming gracefulness. He takes (and takes, and takes) what the defense gives while understanding the many limitations almost all 21-year-old NBA players are burdened with, himself included.
But based on the circumstances in which he came to Oklahoma City -- the pressure and stress and unfair timetable that comes with being a young, developing player on a championship contender acquired for a beloved star -- Lamb is delivering like few thought he would.
The first thing you notice scanning through Lamb's numbers is how efficient he is. His 48.7/41.1/"zero missed free-throws" shooting split is a good start, but the deeper you go, the more supportive the evidence becomes.
Shooting off the dribble is more difficult than catching a pass and letting it fly. Most players, including Lamb, tend to veer off balance, leaning to the side or too far forward. Their shoulders aren't perfectly aligned with the basket, and their feet land in a different spot than where they leapt from.
According to SportVU, Lamb is knocking down an obscene 48.4% of his pull-up field goal attempts. Out of every player in the league who averages at least 2.0 attempts per game, only Boston Celtics guard Courtney Lee is more accurate.
Lamb is also averaging 0.39 points per touch, which is 11th best in the league out of all players who've appeared in at least 15 games, slightly better than high usage stars like James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, and LeBron James, and some of the league's better offensive role players, like Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford).
Feast your eyes on Lamb's NBA.com shot chart:
Even more impressive looking, here's Lamb's shot chart that breaks down the court's basic zones (the corner, above the break, mid-range, paint, and restricted area). It's a green peanut M&M.
If you haven't figured it out, Lamb can shoot. Oklahoma City's coaches know this, which is why more and more they're putting the ball in his hands by design.
According to mySynergySports, Lamb is the 2nd most efficient pick-and-roll ball-handler in the entire league, averaging 1.1 points per possession in just over 30 opportunities.
With a sample size that small, Lamb's success here is more encouraging than concrete. He rarely attacks the basket, instead either shooting a jumper behind the three-point line -- if his man goes below the screen -- or a few dribbles inside it in the face of a sagging big. He isn't very strong, and on forays into the paint -- especially from the baseline -- he can look like a baby calf trying to run across a sheet of ice. (The team's official website lists Lamb at 185 pounds, which is 25 less than Derek Fisher and 55 less than Kevin Durant.)
But when he has an angle to beat his screener's man, Lamb has the handle and quickness to feast, usually showing off a velvety floater with either his right or left hand.
The Thunder coaches have also installed several plays designed to get their sophomore his fair share of wide open looks off the ball. Here's one specific wrinkle they've gone to several times this season.
Both these plays come from the team's "Horns" set, with two bigs (Steven Adams and Nick Collison) stationed at each elbow and two shooters (Lamb and Fisher) in each corner. Reggie Jackson enters the ball to Adams on the left block, then cuts straight towards the rim and sets a screen for Fisher's man positioned on the left.
Fisher takes the screen and dives towards the paint. While he's doing that, Jackson races back up to retrieve the ball from Adams. The entire sequence is dummy action designed to set up Lamb, who's been motionless on the weak side this whole time. Once Jackson gets the ball back, Collison sets a simple down screen on the opposite side, Lamb curls off it, Jackson hits Lamb with the ball, and voila, the Thunder have created an open jump shot for one of their best shooters.
Oklahoma City is 11.3 points per 100 possessions better than their opponent with Lamb on the court, and their offense is 6.8 points per 100 possessions worse when he sits. Translation: when Lamb sits Oklahoma City's offense is about league average. When he plays they're nearly best in the league.
Whether he's destined to become a "star" is subject for another discussion altogether -- here's a side-by-side comparison of Lamb and a 21-year-old James Harden; it's interesting but inconclusive -- but assessing his body of work through the season's opening 24 games may help us answer some of the more important questions Oklahoma City will face in the months ahead.
Lamb is jumpy on the defensive end, but for the most part knows where he's supposed to be. He doesn't rebound or pass particularly well, and is allergic to the charity stripe, averaging .070 free-throw attempts per field goal attempt.
What he can do is shoot, improve the Thunder's spacing, and create a little wiggle room for himself off the dribble. With Durant and Westbrook serving as the team's rightful primary playmakers, Lamb's doing exactly what Oklahoma City needs.
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Michael Pina is a writer from Boston who lives in Los Angeles. His work appears at ESPN, The Classical, Bleacher Report, and Boston Magazine. Follow him @MichaelVPina.