Kevin Durant didn’t hesitate to answer "Jeremy Lamb," when asked who he thought had changed their game the most in the offseason. "You can tell he’s been working."
"We're excited about Jeremy (Lamb) and what he brings to the team," Scott Brooks explained. "He has a lot of areas he is going to improve on the next six or seven years with us."
Along with Reggie Jackson, Lamb was expected to absorb a majority of the minutes left behind by Kevin Martin, who bolted for Minnesota during the offseason. However, after news broke Tuesday that Russell Westbrook is expected to miss the first 4-6 weeks of the season, Lamb’s role became much bigger than expected.
"I don’t sense a need really," Lamb replied when asked before the announcement of Westbrook's second surgery, if he sensed the need for the Thunder to use him in the rotation. "But I do think it’s going to be a good year."
If Lamb didn’t sense the need Friday, it’s almost certain he does now.
The Thunder’s bench will suffer the hardest blow during Westbrook’s absence. Jackson will slide from potential sixth-man of the year back to starting point guard, a role he became familiar with after Patrick Beverley crashed into Westbrook’s knee during the first round of last year's playoffs. This leaves Oklahoma City with Nick Collison, Derek Fisher, Andre Roberson (rookie), Ryan Gomes, Perry Jones III, Daniel Orton, Hasheem Thabeet, and Lamb likely filling out the reserves list. That’s not a group favored to win many second quarters.
Lamb will be a huge factor while Westbrook mends. How he goes, the bench goes. If the offense hasn’t kicked in during the first quarter of a game, it will be Lamb’s job to get it started.
Is he ready?
Not many second-year players are, especially those looking to crack the rotation for the first time with their organization. It takes time to adjust to the NBA’s speed every night. It takes time to learn the ropes off the court and to adjust to life as a professional athlete. Now Lamb will soak up a huge amount of minutes while learning the league as a rotation player on a premier team.
Sam Presti and Brooks have shown a firm understanding of young player management. Westbrook, Durant and Serge Ibaka headline a long list of young players the Thunder have developed, including Jackson, James Harden and Jeff Green. If the two masterminds of the organization rave about a player, success is likely to follow.
So far, nothing suggests Presti and Brooks doubt Lamb’s potential. That will become clear during the first 20 games when Lamb plays Kevin Martin-like minutes, much like Jackson did when he edged out Eric Maynor for the backup point guard spot a year ago.
No one truly cares to see a player go down, especially a superstar like Westbrook. But in the long run, Westbrook’s injury can only benefit Lamb. He now has the opportunity to play starter minutes and lead his own unit. Upon Westbrook’s return, the Thunder should have a more seasoned guard to again split minutes with Jackson off the bench.
"I’m going to try to fill the role of what coach wants," Lamb explained Friday. "I’m not really thinking I have to be like him or be like that. I’m just working hard and everything will work out."
Hard work leads to opportunity in the NBA. Lamb now has his opportunity to carry a beleaguered bench through a rough, six-week stretch. If the Thunder weather the Westbrook injury, it will be Lamb sensing the need to produce.