There were no NBA games to be watched on Monday night, which meant like everyone else, I had to view that poorly-played NCAA championship game between Butler and Connecticut. I sat down expecting to see the best from Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, and Butler’s Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack. I expected to see these experienced players lead their respective teams to a well-played, nip-and-tuck affair. Instead, I saw field-goal percentages that rivaled winter temperatures and turnovers that even the Washington Generals would not make.
Connecticut was able to shake off the poor play just long enough to make a late game run and come out victorious 53-41. Walker had a game-high 16 points to go with nine rebounds, Connecticut center Alex Oriahki had 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks, and in a losing effort, Mack had 13 points and nine rebounds. Howard added seven points and six rebounds for the Bulldogs, but he shot 1-13 and he was a non-factor throughout the game.
Although Walker led the team in scoring and made some timely shots throughout the night, the key to Connecticut’s victory was freshman Jeremy Lamb. After missing his only two field-goal attempts with no points in the first half, Lamb went 4-6 with 12 points in the second half, giving his Huskies a desperately needed cushion. When Connecticut faced its largest deficit of 25-19 after Butler’s Chase Stigall hit a three 20 seconds into the second half, Lamb scored 11 of his team’s next 18 points during a 18-3 run that saw UConn take the lead for good at 37-28 with 11 minutes left in the game.
As happy as I was for the freshman, I immediately became concerned that this strong performance in an otherwise mediocre game would inflate his ego — and more importantly, his NBA prospects. I worried that Lamb would ignore Kemba Walker’s shining example of how a good player leads his team from November to March, and attempt to ride into the NBA on the heels of an OK season and a one very good college game (although, worth noting that Lamb scored 97 points over six NCAA Tournament games, an average of 16.2 points that topped his 11.1 points per game during the season). At one point I even tweeted that I hoped Lamb had a sub par game, so he would be convinced to stay in college.
Luckily for me, the Detroit Pistons were in town the next day to take on (and lose to) the Washington Wizards, which meant I could ask two Connecticut alums to weigh in on the young Lamb. Richard Hamilton attended UConn from 1996-1999, averaged 19.8 points a game, and led the Huskies to a title in 1999. He left for the NBA after his junior year.
Ben Gordon attended UConn from 2001-2004, averaged 17 points per game, and led (along with Emeka Okafor) the Huskies to a title in 2004. After winning the title, he decided to leave for the NBA a year early just like Hamilton had done five years before.
I fully expect Kemba Walker to follow in the footsteps of Gordon and Hamilton and bolt for the NBA on the highest of high notes. But Lamb’s future is very much in doubt right now, so I asked Hamilton and Gordon a) what they would say to the freshman, and b) what was involved in their thought processes before they bolted to the NBA.
Ben Gordon on what he’d say to Lamb:
“I’d just tell him to weigh all his options, look at everything, look at all the cons of the situation, look at how strong the draft is going to be this year, who else is in your position that possibly going to go higher than you. Consult with not only myself, but other guys who made that jump. I would tell him to consider the fact that there’s probably going to be an NBA lockout. I would tell him all these different things to basically scare him — not scare him, but just so that he knows what’s going on. If he’s that confident to make that decision, then my hat’s off to him, but I would try to talk to him as if he was my little brother or something and give him the best advice possible.”
Gordon on how he was advised as an underclassman:
“I went for three years so I was a little more mature at that age, and he’s a freshman right now, so a couple years of college might develop him a little more. But at that point, there were definitely people who were talking to me, but I pretty much knew for a fact [when I left] that this was the decision I could make, and I was definitely going to be a lottery pick. I don’t know if they are projecting [Lamb] as a lottery pick now, but that’s another thing, where do you want to see yourself in the draft? Are you satsified with being a first-rounder, or do you want to be high first rounder. So those are the things that can come under consideration, but once I weighed my options, and listened to people who did it before and gave me good advice, I was comfortable enough to make a decision.”
Rip Hamilton on his advice for Lamb:
“I would definitely tell him to stay. No doubt about it. I think that next year he can really dominate. This year he played well, got comfortable, and came into his own, but next year he’ll be ‘the guy’ and that’s important. Every young player needs the experience of being ‘the guy’ like Kemba had this year. Then you got the lockout coming and all that, there’s really no need to rush to the NBA for a guy like Lamb, the NBA isn’t going anywhere — at least I hope its not. He should stay at least one more year, work on his game, and he’ll be even stronger when he does decide to come out.”
Hamilton on why he didn’t leave UConn earlier:
“[Coach Jim] Calhoun told me straight up I wasn’t ready quite yet. He said why come out too and be a mid-to-late first round pick and just get a little playing time on a playoff team that doesn’t really need my services. He said he’d rather see me come back another year and try to be the Michael Jordan of college basketball and we could win the national championship, and I could say I improved my game, and I helped win a title, and be a lottery pick who played from the jump. I didn’t believe a word of it at the time, but damn if everything he said didn’t come true and then some. So Lamb needs to listen to everyone, but definitely to Calhoun too. He hasn’t stayed around this long for nothing.”
[photos: K. Weidie, Truth About It.net]