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July 14, 2011
Stepping Up
Projecting Lamb's Sophomore Year

by John Gasaway

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It's a good time to be Jeremy Lamb. The Connecticut sophomore already has a national championship under his belt, of course. His former teammate Kemba Walker is now in the NBA (wherever the locked-out NBA is), and Lamb stands to inherit a much larger role in Jim Calhoun's offense. And the 6-5 shooting guard has just returned from the FIBA Under-19 World Championships in Latvia, where he led the fifth-place USA team in scoring.

In other words Lamb's on-track to raise his profile considerably in Storrs this coming season, if indeed he hasn't raised it already. But can we predict exactly how big a bump in scoring Lamb will record as a sophomore? Well, no, but we can outline the most likely scenario based on what we know about Lamb, Calhoun, and, most importantly, the past. (Hint: Kemba Walker is not the first featured scorer to leave Connecticut.)

First, a word of clarification on what Lamb has done with his summer vacation. I stand second to none in my appreciation of the young man, and he did indeed lead the USA's U-19 team in scoring (averaging 16 points per game), but in truth Lamb recorded a notably uneven performance in Latvia.

Lamb had one undeniably great game (35 points on 13-of-23 shooting in the Americans' thrilling OT win over Lithuania), but over the course of nine games his scoring efficiency was dismal. Specifically his two-point shooting was sub-par (46 percent) for an interior-oriented team that, overall, was very good at making two-point shots: USA players not named "Jeremy Lamb" made 54 percent of their attempts inside the arc. Basically Lamb scored a lot of points because USA coach Paul Hewitt chose to run the offense through him, giving the UConn star fully 31 percent of the team's shot attempts during his minutes.

(By the way, a look at Lamb's raw stats from Latvia also reveals that FIBA tracks two-point percentages as a matter of course. NCAA and NBA take note!)

Coincidentally, the shot percentage that Lamb recorded for Team USA -- 31 -- more or less describes the starring role that Walker played for the Huskies last year. In Walker's absence all those shots will have to be taken by other Connecticut players, and we have some pretty good reasons to think that Lamb will get more than his fair share of those newly available attempts:

Lamb's a sophomore. It's long been an article of faith that sophomores make a bigger year-to-year jump than any other class of players. It turns out there's good reason to subscribe to this belief. Among major-conference freshmen who logged significant playing time in 2009-10, possession usage increased by an average of 1.4 percent per player in 2010-11. That may not sound like a huge increase, but for our purposes the important thing about that number is that it's significantly larger than the increases registered by the sophomores who became juniors, or the juniors who became seniors. The sophomore jump is real.

Jim Calhoun prohibits his big men from shooting. OK, maybe "prohibits" is a bit strong. Better to say that unless the UConn big man in question has just pulled down an offensive rebound, it is highly unlikely that he's going to attempt a shot from the field. This season the Connecticut offense will likely go through Lamb and two of his teammates, not Lamb and four teammates. (This is assuming, of course, that Calhoun chooses to return for another season on the sidelines at Gampel Pavilion.)

It's Lamb's turn. Before Kemba Walker became the best player on a national championship team, he was a supporting player alongside the likes of Jerome Dyson and A.J. Price. In fact the shot percentage that Walker recorded as a sophomore (22.8) in support of Dyson is virtually identical to what Lamb posted as a freshman last year (22.6) in support of Walker. If the recent past is any indication, Lamb is about to take a great leap forward.

Not that the transition to a Lamb-led UConn team will be seamless. For a long time now Connecticut's featured a scoring point guard who can dish assists, get into the lane, and, especially, get to the line. That doesn't describe Lamb very well, and even though he says he's working on those parts of his game, no one, least of all Calhoun, expects the sophomore to morph into a Walker clone overnight. (Note for example that Lamb was on the floor for 308 USA possessions in Latvia and attempted just 23 free throws.) In short, Lamb's performance as a sophomore will depend in part on the ability of teammates like Shabazz Napier to step into Walker's shoes as a floor general.

Still, even with all the proper disclaimers, Lamb is teed up for a big statistical jump. For one thing his minutes will go up (last year he averaged 28 minutes a game; Walker averaged 38), even as his role in the offense expands. That translates into more points, though they may not be scored as efficiently as they were when Lamb was a supporting player alongside Walker. I'm forecasting a jump from last year's average of 11 points per game to something more in the neighborhood of 19 points per outing in Lamb's sophomore year. You heard it here first.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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