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NBA Daily: Lamb’s Opportunity In Charlotte Is Here

Spencer Davies chats with Charlotte Hornets guard Jeremy Lamb and first-year head coach James Borrego about the 26-year-old’s starting role.

Spencer Davies

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A short few games into the Charlotte Hornets’ season, James Borrego pulled Jeremy Lamb aside to talk.

Why haven’t you been a starter in this league?

Together, the first-year head coach and former UConn standout discussed the topic at length, identifying specific areas and reasons as to why that was.

I believe you can be if you want to be.

The question Borrego posed was a fair one. Lamb is in his seventh year in the league. As the 12th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft, there were high hopes for the Huskies sophomore to transition seamlessly into the professional ranks.

It wasn’t quite as cut and dry as some may have thought it would be.

The Houston Rockets picked him in that draft, but it wasn’t long before they sent Lamb to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the infamous James Harden trade, mere days before the season began.

During his three-year stint with the Thunder, Lamb showed plenty of flashes of what he could become at this level. However, with the likes of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in front of him, among others, his chances to do so were sporadic.

“Everybody’s road is different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Me, when I first got in the league, I was playing behind All-Stars. I wasn’t in a position to play at that time. I wasn’t big enough to play.”

Knowing the situation he was in, Lamb made it a priority to soak up all the advice and information he could. Oklahoma City’s roster was loaded with “the greatest players in the game” when it came to veteran leadership.

Guys like Derek Fisher, Caron Butler, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison—along with Serge Ibaka and Thabo Sefolosha—guided Lamb every day he was there. The Thunder coaching staff kept him motivated to stay ready.

In the summer of 2015, Oklahoma City traded Lamb to the Hornets. He quickly signed a contract extension after the deal was made and has been with the franchise since.

When the move happened, Lamb knew his time was coming. All of those lessons he learned from the vets were going to pay off, and he took them with him in the next step of his career.

“All the stuff they told me, I lived by that and it stuck with me,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “Just trying to get better every year, just trying to never be satisfied, trying to work on my weaknesses, trying to keep working on the things I was good at. I don’t know, just trying to stay focused and be the best player that I can be.”

One month into year seven as a pro, Lamb has secured a role with the starting five in Charlotte. And while he has started games in the past, things are different this time.

He’s looked more confident when he’s been out on the court. He’s getting into the paint at a high rate. He’s shooting a career-high three-point percentage.

And the most encouraging part of his game that’s improved? The defensive focus.

“Being a starting two-guard in the league is not easy,” Borrego said. “You gotta guard every single night, can’t take a night off. So I give him a lot of credit. He’s grown up a lot this season. I’m proud of him and I think he’s growing every single game.”

When asked why it’s taken Lamb longer than others to adapt to the NBA, the answer wasn’t an easy one to give for Borrego. It could be as simple as opportunity or a different type of learning curve, but there is no singular reason.

“It takes time,” Borrego said. “It just takes time to grow and mature and learn the game and figure out who you are and where you fit in this league. Sometimes it takes one year, two years and obviously here he is, seven years in, and he has his opportunity now.

Asking Lamb the same thing directly, he believes it comes down to applying the knowledge he’s gained and taking it year by year. While acknowledging that some in his draft class may have grown up at a fast rate, the 26-year-old also pointed out the chunk of players who are no longer a part of the association.

“Am I just getting comfortable in the league? I’m not just getting comfortable, but with every year you get more comfortable, more experience,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. More years, you know how the league is, you know how things go. So I’m not just now getting comfortable, but I get more and more comfortable every year for sure. It’s a blessing to be able to be in my seventh year.

“Nobody, including myself, thought that I would be in the league this long. And it’s just been a huge blessing and I’m trying to take advantage of it.”

Looking at Lamb’s success, it’s gone hand-in-hand with the new system Borrego has implemented. The Hornets are playing smart and defending well, and the players are buying in.

“Just trying to be aggressive, just trying to keep working,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders of his success. “Take what the defense gives me. I play off of Kemba [Walker]. They converge on him, I just try to knock down the shot.

“I think he really put [an] emphasis on threes and getting to the rim, and I feel like getting to the rim, good things happen. That’s one thing about his system. He really caters it to getting to the rim. So that’s why we’re getting more threes, we’re getting to the free throw line, we’re getting a lot of points in the paint, getting out in transition. It’s good.”

As per usual, Walker is on a tear, averaging over 26 points and getting up a team-high 10 threes per game for the first time in his career. He’s leading the Hornets on the floor and in the box scores. It’s almost as if the locker room should be endorsing the KeM-VP campaign.

“I think he is,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “He been playing at that level right now and the sky’s the limit for him. That’s funny you say KeM-VP. That’s hilarious. But all his hard work is paying off. He’s been playing great and it’s been fun to watch.”

As one of the brighter young minds in the NBA, Borrego, a longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant and one-time Orlando Magic interim head coach, has brought a palpable liveliness and enthusiasm to the Hornets this year.

“It’s definitely been different,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a new energy. Everything is different. I think we’ve adjusted well to the new system and [are] playing well.”

Borrego doesn’t necessarily think that there was a chemistry issue before he arrived. He and his staff only had one goal, and that was to make sure the guys on the roster played a selfless brand of basketball.

“When you have a healthy culture, when you have guys that believe in each other, like being around each other, they trust each other, they’re unselfish—I’ve seen what that does for a team,” Borrego said. “And it’s not always easy to change that.”

Attending Charlotte’s shoot-arounds in the past, at least from this writer’s perspective, you’d rarely hear the team as engaged as it was Tuesday morning in Cleveland.

Before media availability, curtains are closed and practices are private for the road team. But these guys were counting in unison as they battled each other in a team vs. team three-point contest.

It was the first to five or ten in each matchup. In the process, you could hear how much of a blast it was for everybody involved.

“These players are like, they’re kids,” Borrego said. “They get into it. They love it. They’re competitive. And that’s kind of the way to get them going in the morning. They don’t want to hear me talk about Cleveland or shoot-around or this or that.

“This group is really having fun this year. They’re excited. They like playing with each other. They like playing for one another. They like competing against each other in these games. So we believe we have a healthy locker room right now and a healthy group out there.”

A mixture of age groups on the roster could be a big reason why. Lamb thinks that the older guys who have been there and done that can help the youth develop. By the same token, those younger players provide the energy to practices and in the games, which can give the veterans a boost.

Lamb was approached with the term, “loose” to describe the mood of the team. He disagrees with that, but he senses the togetherness.

“We try to have fun,” Lamb told Basketball Insiders. “I didn’t know it’d be that much smiling at shoot-around because people be wanting to be in their bed. But no, we definitely try to make the most out of it. Every time we get, we try to get better.”

During Borrego’s time in San Antonio, he got to coach a man in a similar predicament. His name was Patty Mills, and, as we know, he’s turned into one of the most reliable players in this league for Gregg Popovich.

“He earned it,” Borrego said. “He grew over time and figured out his role in this league and he’s established himself.”

Now at the head of the ship in Charlotte, Borrego sees a similar path for Lamb.

“He’s not going anywhere,” Borrego said. “This is a guy that believes he belongs. He believes he can be a starter now, and I expect him to only grow from here.

“Once you get a taste of being a starter, you want to stay a starter, you want to keep that mentality—stay hungry, stay focused. So he has that ability to do that.”

Spencer Davies is an NBA writer based in Cleveland in his first year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past two seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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NBA Daily: Keldon Johnson Is Next In Line

Keldon Johnson, a prototypical 3-and-D prospect, will have plenty of franchises clamoring to get a look at Kentucky’s next 19-year-old star-in-waiting, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau

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The life of a potential non-lottery first-rounder is not easy, make no mistake.

And for Keldon Johnson, a wild final month may be just beginning.

Johnson, 19, is one of three players from the University of Kentucky expected to be drafted in the opening round next month — but where exactly is anybody’s guess. At 6-foot-6, Johnson is an athletically-gifted guard, above average in both the open court and from behind the arc. His overlying statistics — 13.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 38.1 percent from three — might not scream can’t-miss, but the freshman is ready to get after it and prove his worthiness during the springtime workouts.

“I’m fine with competing, I did it all year and I’ve been doing it all my life,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders during last week’s NBA Draft Combine. “All I gotta do is just keep working hard. I think if I keep working hard and stay in the gym, I’ll be fine.”

So far, Johnson has received strong marks — both during the collegiate season and during these most recent tests — for his passion, athleticism and effort on defense. Given his height and lengthy wingspan, it’s possible that Johnson could slot in at the small forward position at the next level too. Basically, Johnson kind of spring-loaded rotation-worthy asset that every franchise could use, whether rebuilding or as a yearly powerhouse.

Thankfully, that’s a position that Johnson finds himself settling into one month before the draft.

As is customary for the back half of the first thirty picks — the odds are high, barring a trade, that Johnson lands on a team that reached the postseason this year. In fact, the only team that didn’t have a playoff game with a current selection between Nos. 14 and 30 is Cleveland at 26. The possibilities, particularly so given Johnson’s modern skill-set, are endless.

Whenever he ends up, though, Johnson just wants to make a good impression.

“I definitely want to play my first year, but if I get in a situation where I won’t get as many minutes and they still develop me, I’ll be fine,” Johnson said. “I definitely want to play, but if that’s not the case, then I just have to keep working.”

Prestigious franchises like Boston, Golden State and San Antonio decorate Johnson’s perceived pick range, with perennial postseason contenders in Milwaukee, Portland, Oklahoma City, Utah and Philadelphia finishing out the round. Johnson, like most young prospects, will have to work at improving his deficiencies — to some, that includes his free throw percentages and playmaking — but what he could eventually offer far outweighs everything else.

A defensive-minded athlete that can stretch the floor? Check. A multi-position shooter that wears those impassioned emotions on his sleeve? Sign him up. Understandably, Johnson wants to land with a franchise that can help him hit the ground running as a rookie, both on and off the floor.

“Just having a great relationship with the whole organization,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Coming and fitting in right away, them developing me and getting me ready to play at that level.”

One look at Johnson’s stellar freshman year highlights, however, and it’s hard to see how the former Wildcat won’t fit in. For as much as things change — what with the need for floor-stretching unicorns and seven-foot point guards these days — sometimes, other matters stay exactly the same.

The desire for 3-and-D contributors in the NBA will never die and Johnson seems to fit that mold exceedingly well. And, if anything, that may just be his floor.

On seven occasions in 2018-19, Johnson tallied 20 or more points, even hitting at least one three-pointer in six of them. During a mid-season contest against Utah, Johnson went a blistering 6-for-7 from deep before notching 4-for-7 against the much tougher North Carolina a week later. If the pressure wasn’t high enough then, Johnson certainly lived up to the hype during the NCAA Tournament as well.

Although he struggled against Houston, Johnson was solid in Kentucky’s narrow loss to Auburn in the Elite Eight, tossing down 14 points, 10 rebounds and three assists on 4-for-6 from the free throw line. Time and time again, giving the ball to Johnson resulted in wins for the eventual No. 2-seeded Kentucky.

According to Johnson, he believes he’s a more-than-capable passer too — an opinion he’s set out to cement during upcoming private one-on-one sessions.

“I really just shoot the ball — [but] I can handle the ball a lot better than what they think,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Once I go into workouts, I’ll be fine.”

Since 2010, more than 20 players from Kentucky have been chosen in the NBA Draft and their list of former superstars needs little introduction — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns and John Wall to name a few — but their continued success with prospects under John Calipari cannot be understated. Just last year alone, four Wildcats were selected, including Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Kevin Knox, the former of which was just named to the All-Rookie Second Team earlier this week.

But with his silky smooth stroke, Johnson’s mechanics and release have potential franchises simply excited about the type of two-way scorer he could be in the near future. Against stiff competition like LSU’s Naz Reid and teammate Tyler Herro– two other likely first-rounders in June — Johnson still finished the season as the SEC Freshman of the Year for good reason.

In a month, somehow, everything and nothing will change. Fundamentally, Johnson will be drafted to an eager team somewhere in the first round, a franchise that will want to feature his NBA-ready qualities — whether that be on the defensive end or from behind the arc. Johnson’s name may not be mentioned in the same breath as Zion Williamson or Ja Morant — two other freshman standouts — but the marathon has only just started.

With everything other than the interviews and individual workouts now officially out of his hands, Johnson’s trying not to sweat the small stuff.

“[I’m] just enjoying the process, just having a great time,” Johnson said. “I mean, really enjoying it, to be honest, don’t take it for granted and enjoy the whole thing.”

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NBA Daily: Luguentz Dort – A Different Kind of Point Guard

Shane Rhodes

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The point guard position is a clearly-defined one – perhaps the most defined – in the modern NBA.

At the one, you are either an elite shooter (both inside and on the perimeter), ala Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, an elite passer, ala Chris Paul, Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, or some combination of the two.

Luguentz Dort doesn’t exactly fit that bill.

The 20-year-old combo-guard out of Arizona State University didn’t shoot the competition out of the gym – Dort managed a field goal percentage of just 40.5 and hit on a meager 30.7 percent from downtown. And he wasn’t exactly the flashiest passer, as he averaged just 2.3 assists per game in his lone season with the Sun Devils.

He’s different. But, according to Dort, he has what it takes to run the point at the next level.

“I know that I can become a really good leader on the court and create for my teammates,” Dort said at the 2019 NBA Draft Combine.

Confidence and an “I-will-outwork-you” competitive attitude are at the center of Dort and his game. Those two aspects drive the engine that has made Dort one of the more intriguing prospects in the back end of the first round. He may not be the most talented player in this class, but Dort is hyper-competitive and can out-hustle anyone on any given night.

“When I play,” Dort said, “I’m really going at people to let them know it’s not going to be easy.”

There is a hunger in Dort – a desire to win that is evidenced in his game. An aggressor on both offense and defense, Dort’s motor is always going. His primary selling point is his defensive ability; built like an NFL defensive end, Dort can bring energy and effort to any defense. He has more than enough speed to stick with smaller guards on the perimeter and more than enough strength to bump with bigger forwards in the paint.

Dort has also shown a knack for jumping passing lanes to either deflect passes or outright steal the ball; Dort was fourth in the Pac-12 as he averaged 1.5 steals per game and 1.9 per 40 minutes.

Dort has made it a point to put that defensive ability and intensity on full display for potential suitors. At the Combine, Dort said he wanted to show teams “how tough I play on defense” and “how hard I play and the type of competitor I am.”

Offensively, Dort is an impeccable cutter. At Arizona State, Dort averaged 1.289 points per possession on cuts, according to Synergy Sports. When he goes to the rim, Dort used his size and power to his advantage in order to get to the basket and either drop it in the bucket or draw a foul. He isn’t Irving with the ball in his hands, but Dort can make a move with the ball to create space as well.

Dort isn’t a superb passer, but he has a solid vision and can make, and often made while at Arizona State, the right pass as well.

But can Dort overcome the inconsistencies that plagued him at Arizona State? Dort was, at times, reckless with the ball in his hands. Whether he drove into a crowd just to throw up an ill-fated shot attempt or forced an errant pass, Dort’s decision-making must improve. His shooting is suspect and his touch around the rim – two skills critical to the modern point guard – weren’t exactly up to snuff either.

There were lapses on the defensive end as well. Sometimes Dort would fall asleep off the ball or he would be too aggressive one-on-one. If he is too handsy or unaware, NBA veterans will take advantage of every chance they get against him.

But, according to Dort, he has worked on those issues.

“My decision making got a lot better,” Dort said. “My shot, my free throws, everything. I really worked on all that this season.”

But in order to truly make an impact at the next level, he’ll have to continue to work and refine those skills further.

More work has never been an issue for Dort. However raw he may appear, he has the look of and the work-ethic required of NBA-caliber talent. Dort’s ultimate goal for the Combine, other than draw interest from NBA teams, was simple: “learn about everything, get feedback and go back to Arizona and continue to work on my game.” Whether or not teams view him as a point guard, shooting guard or something else entirely is a matter for debate, but, standing at just over 6-foot-4, 222 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and high motor, Dort has the versatility and ability to stick at, and is willing to play, a variety of different spots on the floor.

“I want to play any position a team would want me to play,” Dort said.

He may not be the prototypical point guard, but with that kind of willing, team-first attitude, Dort, at some point or another, is almost certain to make it to and have an impact at the next level.

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NBA Daily: Brandon Clarke Working From The Ground Up

Because of the unusual path he’s taken to get here, Brandon Clarke has established himself as one of the more unique prospects in the 2019 NBA Draft, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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When the draft time comes along, teams who have the higher picks usually look for guys who have the highest ceiling. Because of this, they usually decide to take players on the younger side because they believe those who have less experience have more room to improve.

This puts Brandon Clarke at a slight disadvantage. Clarke is 22 years old – and will be 23 when training camp rolls around – and only just recently came onto the scene after an excellent performance for Gonzaga in March Madness this season.

Competing for scouts’ attention against those who are younger and/or deemed better prospects than him would be quite the challenge, but because of what he’s been through, said challenge didn’t seem to faze him one bit at the combine.

“It was a different path for me,” Clarke said. “ I’m 22 and there are some guys here that are only 18 years old. With that being said, I’m still here.”

The Canadian native has clearly had to pay his dues to get to where he is. Clarke originally played for San Jose State, a school that had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in its program’s history – the most recent entry being 1996 – whose last alum to play in the NBA was Tariq Abdul-Wahad. Props to you if you know who that is!

Playing under a program that didn’t exactly boast the best reputation wasn’t exactly ideal for Clarke. In fact, according to him, it was disheartening at times.

“There were definitely times that I felt down,” Clarke said. “When I first went there, I was kind of freaking out because I was going to a team that had only won two or three games prior to me getting there.”

No tournament bids came from Brandon’s efforts, but the Spartans saw a spike in their win total in the two seasons he played there. The team went from two wins to nine in his freshman year, then went from nine wins to fourteen his sophomore year. Clarke’s performance definitely had a fair amount to do with San Jose State’s higher success rate, but the man praised the program for the opportunity it gave him.

“We did some really big things for that college so I’m really grateful for the stuff I could do for them,” Clarke said.

After spending two years at SJS, Clarke then transferred to Gonzaga where he redshirted for a year before getting himself back on the court. When he did, he put himself on the map.

Clarke dominated in his lone year with the Bulldogs, averaging 16.9 points and 8.6 rebounds – including 3.1 offensive boards – as well as 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per game. The man clearly established himself as a high-energy small-ball center at 6-foot-8 ¼ inches, and it paved the way for Gonzaga to get a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament and go all the way to the Elite Eight.

Brandon loved the experience with the Bulldogs, both for the opportunity they gave him and for what he was able to do for them on the court.

“It was a great year,” Clarke said. “I got to play with some of the best players in the country… It was everything that I ever dreamed of. I’m going to miss it a lot. From a personal standpoint, I was just really blessed that I was able to block shots… I felt that I was really efficient too and I really helped us on the offensive end taking smart shots.”

Both his age and the small sample size, unfortunately, go hand in hand so that it’s hard to pinpoint where exactly Brandon Clarke will be taken in the draft. The latest Consensus Mock Draft from Basketball Insiders has all four contributors disagreeing where he will be selected, ranging from being picked as high ninth overall to as low as 21st.

Where he will get selected will all depend on who trusts what could be his greatest weakness – his shotty jumper.

In a league where spacing is so very crucial to consistent success, Clarke’s inability to space the floor hurts his stock. His free throw shooting at Gonzaga saw a drastic improvement from San Jose State, as he went from 57 percent to almost 70. That’s not as much of a liability but not much of a strength either. His three-point shooting in that time took a dive in that time, going from 33 percent to almost 27, which definitely does not help.

To be a hotter commodity at the draft, Clarke had to prove he could shoot the rock from anywhere, which is what he set to do at the combine.

“That is my biggest question mark,” Clarke said. “I’ve been working really hard on it. So I’m hoping that they can see that I can actually shoot it and that I have made lots of progress on it, and that they can trust me to get better at it.”

The journey that Clarke has been on to get to where he is had made him all the wiser as a player. With him expected to enter the NBA next season, he had a simple yet profound message to aspiring young ballers everywhere.

“Trust yourself. Trust your coaches. Trust everybody around you that you love… Make the best out of the situation that you are in.”

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