Jeremy Lamb has been overshadowed all month long, so there was no reason for things to change in the NCAA's Championship game. On a night that will be remembered primarily for missed shots, Lamb was one of just two starters--his teammate Alex Oriakhi was the other--to make at least half of his tries from the field. After Lamb missed most of the first half with two fouls, his presence on the floor helped get the Connecticut Huskies get going on offense to overcome a deficit at the break.
Like everyone else on the floor, Lamb got off to a slow start before picking up a pair of fouls in less than a minute's pan midway through the first half. Wanting to protect one of his most valuable players, Jim Calhoun sat Lamb down--as he would also do with Oriakhi and later Kemba Walker. A short-handed UConn lineup went scoreless for the last 6:05 before halftime, allowing Butler to claim the lead on a pair of Shelvin Mack triples.
When the starters returned for the second half, Lamb's scoring and energy helped turn the game in the Huskies' favor. Lamb scored nine points during the 13-1 Connecticut run that gave the Huskies a seven-point lead that was nearly insurmountable the way the Bulldogs struggled to put points on the board. Lamb scored in a variety of manners, getting to the free throw line, knocking down a three, dunking off a steal and scoring off his own putback. In a game where points were at a premium, Lamb's contributions were critical.
That was true throughout the month of March. Lamb was the biggest reason opponents were unable to throw all their defensive resources at Walker in the wake of his superhuman Big East Tournament run. When Walker did struggle against the extra defensive attention he faced in the NCAA Tournament--including Monday night, when the point guard made just five of his 19 shot attempts--Lamb was there to make Connecticut far more than just a one-man show on offense.
Like his team, Lamb finished the regular season on a down note. He scored fewer than 10 points in six of UConn's last seven games in Big East play, shooting 42.1 percent on two-point attempts during that span as the Huskies went 3-4. His strong play in January and early February was just a memory as Lamb looked like a freshman incapable of contributing on a consistent basis.
Starting when Connecticut arrived in New York for the Big East Tournament, Lamb turned it on. Besides Walker, who deservedly got the heavy majority of the credit, Lamb was the biggest reason UConn was able to survive the gauntlet of five games in five days at Madison Square Garden and a variety of challenges in the NCAA Tournament to take home a pair of championships. Lamb scored double figures in all 11 of the elimination games the Huskies swept.
As the stages got bigger, so too did Lamb's production as he rapidly improved from something of a project--he was the very last player mentioned in the Connecticut analysis in College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11--into a capable sidekick for Walker. The metamorphosis was most obvious in terms of Lamb's shooting percentages and his overall efficiency.
Games 2P% 3P% eFG% TS%
Nonconf .525 .281 .489 .506
Big East .547 .339 .533 .544
BE Tourn .564 .333 .549 .607
NCAAs .558 .632 .677 .702
Certainly, Lamb benefited from all the attention Walker drew. Few teams had the defensive resources to cover two talented perimeter scorers. But Lamb presented matchup problems in his own right with his combination of size, ballhandling and shooting ability. As Clark Kellogg noted during the CBS broadcast of the championship game, in some ways Lamb was more of an issue for Butler defensively than Walker. The Bulldogs had no one Lamb's size capable of equaling his athleticism.
That same skill set, and particularly Lamb's freakishly long arms, caught the attention of NBA scouts during the month of March. Lamb is still presumably at least a year away from making the leap, but he has put himself squarely on the radar of NBA teams after entering the season as something of an afterthought in professional terms.
What scouts will want to see next from Lamb is how he will handle what is inevitably ahead: a featured role in the UConn offense. Walker, who is set to graduate a year early, is surely headed to the NBA as a likely lottery pick. That will leave Lamb as the offensive leader of the defending champs. Fellow freshman Shabazz Napier actually used the most plays of any Husky besides Walker (he was the only other UConn player above average in usage rate), but Lamb took more shots while on the floor and was far more accurate as a shooter. A majority of the plays that were run for Walker figure to be called for Lamb next season.
Already, Lamb has proven that he's a championship-caliber second option. This time next year, we'll know whether he can be equally effective in a featured role.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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