ORLANDO, Fla. — Jeremy Lamb labored through much of the Thunder’s opening-day game at the Orlando Pro Summer League.
He struggled with his shot. He turned the ball over. He failed to make his teammates better.
His final stat line: 14 points, 4-for-12 shooting, 1-for-7 from 3-point range, five rebounds, two assists, two blocks and four turnovers in 30 minutes.
The Thunder suffered a shocking 84-63 loss at the hands of Memphis.
After sitting out Sunday against Philadelphia as a scheduled day of rest, Lamb returned to the court Monday against Brooklyn and performed much better. He scored a game-high 26 points. He pulled down eight rebounds. He worked his way to the free-throw line eight times.
The Thunder won, 98-84.
“Jeremy’s a great competitor,” said Thunder assistant/summer league coach Darko Rajakovic. “Jeremy’s a winner. And when his team needs him most, he gives his best games. And he proved that again tonight. He’s proved that a lot of times.”
The manner in which Lamb bounced back was reminiscent of Reggie Jackson at last year’s summer league. In his first game, Jackson had a similarly disappointing performance. He scored four points on 2-for-7 shooting, had four rebounds, four assists, four fouls and seven turnovers in 17 minutes. But the next game, Jackson erupted for an Orlando Pro Summer League record 35 points, 23 of which came in the fourth quarter. He netted 18 straight at one point.
“I didn’t do nothing comparing to what Reggie did last year,” said Lamb, who was also on that year’s summer league team. “He had 23 in a quarter. I had 20-whatever in the game. What Reggie did was unbelievable. But you always want to bounce back. You always want to get better from game to game, so it builds confidence being able to bounce back. I still missed a lot of shots. But I stayed aggressive. My team believed in me.”
For all we know, two summer league games could be only the beginning of the similarities between Jackson and Lamb.
Jackson used summer league last year as a springboard to a highly successful third season. He became a vital member of the Thunder’s rotation as the sixth man and on-again, off-again starter while Russell Westbrook recovered from knee surgeries. With double the minutes, Jackson upped his scoring average from 5.3 points to 13.1 points. He increased his rebounds from 2.4 to 3.9 and kicked up his assists from 1.7 to 4.1.
Lamb is now looking to do the same.
“I definitely got confidence now that I’ve been through my second year and going into my third,” Lamb said. “But I still have a lot to learn. It’s a lot of things I want to get better at. A lot of things I want to add to my game. So I’m just getting started.”
Lamb isn’t sure what his role will be next season. He’s a candidate for the starting shooting guard job after the departure of Thabo Sefolosha. But he said he hasn’t been told which direction the team will go with that spot.
“We just focus on getting better as a team, getting better as players,” Lamb said. “So nobody has discussed that.”
The main thing that’s holding Lamb back is defense. For years, the Thunder has preferred a defensive-minded shooting guard in the starting lineup, someone who can set the tone against the league’s best perimeter scorers and take pressure off of Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Lamb, at this point, is not that. He might never be. But he’s vowed to improve his defense.
“I’m definitely, definitely going to work on my defense,” Lamb said last month at his exit interview. “I (saw) a lot of players this year; at first, I didn’t care about defense at all, but seeing these players that lock you up, then go score on you, that motivates me. So I definitely will work on my defense and come back a much better defensive player. I think that will help me being a whole overall player. When you disrupt on both ends of the floor, I think that’s huge.”
As he did throughout the season last year, Lamb through his first two summer league games is proving to be a willing defender. But he hasn’t done anything to stand out on that end. In his first game, Lamb split time covering Memphis’ Jamaal Franklin, last year’s 41st overall pick, and Jordan Adams, this year’s 22nd overall selection. In his second outing, Lamb was matched up mostly with former Oklahoma State guard Markel Brown, the 44th overall pick.
The results were mixed.
Franklin scored 10 points on 2-for-8 shooting, but Adams posted 22 points on 5-for-12 shooting. Brown finished with seven points on 2-for-4 shooting.
But Lamb has made it clear that scoring is his biggest strength. When asked what area he can make the biggest impact on next season, Lamb said putting the ball in the basket.
That’s clearly been his main focus in Orlando.
Lamb has scored 40 points on 33 shots in his first two games. He’s attempted 14 3-pointers, 15 free throws and dished just three assists. When the ball has been in his hands, more often than not a shot has gone up.
But maybe it’s all a part of his plan to develop his ball-handling and assertiveness.
“I’m trying to get better,” Lamb said. “Your shot’s not going to be on every game so you’ve got to learn different ways to do it, whether that’s getting to the free-throw line, mid-range, getting to the hole, whatever it is you’ve just got to find a way.”