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In like a Lamb

Hard-working UConn guard ready for next step to NBA

By Alex Prewitt
Globe Correspondent / June 27, 2012
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E. Victor Nickerson exposed the bluff, or so he thought. When the former Norcross (Ga.) High School forward caught word that teammate Jeremy Lamb routinely hoisted a few jumpers before the first bell rang, Nickerson had to witness it himself. One morning, he arrived around 5, ready to verify that no high schooler would dare swap precious sleep for grueling workouts.

Lamb was already there.

“Any time you heard a ball bouncing, there’s a very good chance it was Jeremy,’’ Norcross coach Jesse McMillan said. “You can use the ‘gym rat’ label for a lot of kids, but very few prove it, and he did, pretty much every day.

“We start school at 7:20 a.m., and he was routinely there before I was, putting in the work, not just talking the talk.’’

Understand, Jeremy Lamb’s ascent is, in McMillan’s words, fairly cut and dried. Unbeatable odds and fairy-tale fables will not be found here. Just an indomitable work ethic, engendered by a father preaching high character, refined through early-morning shootarounds in the Atlanta suburbs, and ultimately unleashed during a summer when his stock soared into the stratosphere.

A 6-foot-5-inch guard with a vulturous wingspan, Lamb left the University of Connecticut after his sophomore season and is a projected lottery pick in the NBA draft Thursday. He and college teammate Andre Drummond will be among the 14 players invited to the two-day event at the Prudential Center in Newark.

Lamb is about to become the fourth Norcross alumnus drafted since 2009.

But it was only four years ago, during his junior season in high school, that Lamb was McMillan’s sixth man, a basketball bridesmaid behind his older brother, Zach - even though Zach never saw it that way.

“He’ll tell me that he looks up to me, but I look up to him more than he looks up to me,’’ Zach Lamb said. “His work ethic was always great. It was crazy when we were young. Just dribbling and playing outside, in the driveway, down the street, sometimes even in the house.’’

As they dominated the childhood hardwood together, Zach said, Jeremy was like a twin brother.

“I could come down the court as point guard, I wouldn’t even have to look at him to know where he’s going to be,’’ Zach said. “I think that was funny, about when we was growing up, we’d just kill teams because our chemistry was crazy.’’

Growth spurt

Think Lamb’s chemistry is solid? Try his biology. His father, Rolando Lamb, rose to fame with Virginia Commonwealth during the 1984 NCAA Tournament, when a turnaround buzzer-beater eliminated Northeastern. The feathery jumper became his son’s biggest asset, drawing comparisons to NBA stars Richard Hamilton and Ray Allen, among others.

And in a strange twist of small-world fate, Northeastern’s coach at the time was Jim Calhoun, who later had Jeremy at UConn.

As the story goes, Calhoun called the Lamb household one night to speak with Jeremy about committing to UConn. When Jeremy’s father answered, Calhoun made the connection - memories of Rolando’s nightmarish shot flooding back.

You can make it up to me, Calhoun told Rolando, by giving me your son.

Lamb’s recruitment began slowly. Entering the summer before his senior year, he had just one scholarship offer, from UNC-Greensboro. But at the famed Nike Peach Jam in South Carolina, with coaches such as Calhoun and Kentucky’s John Calipari in the stands, Lamb opened the floodgates against a team led by guard Brandon Knight, now with the Pistons.

“Well, over the summer, he just blew up out of nowhere,’’ Zach said. “The growth happened in, like, two days. I was away at school.

“From what I heard from our parents, he was playing with so much confidence going into his senior year. He played more mature and really just blew up in two days.’’

Given Lamb’s resolve, it was only a matter of time. Soon, the suitors came knocking. Texas, Georgia, Clemson, and Florida all expressed interest. Finally a starter his senior season, Lamb captained the team and averaged 20 points per game. And he settled on UConn.

“It was almost like he was unleashed,’’ McMillan said. “It was finally his team, he was out of his brother’s shadow, and all that work he put into it. Like we took the shackles off him.’’

A sense of humility

Passive to the point of perceived laziness, Lamb acknowledges that his laidback reputation concerns scouts. His brother thinks it might be the sleepy eyes, always half-concealed by his lids. Addressing the UConn team at the White House after their 2011 national championship, even President Barack Obama called him quiet.

“But he lets his play do the talking,’’ said the president.

Those who know him best, like the Norcross teammates who clowned around with Lamb in the locker room, will paint a different portrait, one of a “goofy’’ and “silly’’ personality. He once taught UConn president Susan Herbst a dance called “The Lamb Shake,’’ the shimmying and shaking resembling those inflatable tubes that advertise used car lots.

“I think that’s just what his personality is,’’ said Josiah Moore, a former Norcross teammate now playing for Tennessee Tech. “As far as speaking up or whatever, that’s just how he is.’’

That Lamb chose UConn in part for its familial atmosphere makes sense. His mother, Angela, home-schooled Jeremy through eighth grade. He takes his character cues from his father, the self-dubbed “America’s Character Coach,’’ a pastor who raised his sons in the church and on the court.

“If we weren’t raised in the church like we [were] - my dad taught us humility - I don’t think Jeremy would mature like he did, going back to the year that he had to play behind me,’’ Zach said. “It was sort of hard.

“In the church, everyone’s saying we were going to the league. Every Sunday. ‘Oh, the Lamb boys are going to the league.’ People expected so much of us, we felt like we didn’t want to let people down.’’

Jeremy never did. Before he left, he earned honorable mention All-American status and a national title at UConn. But before he led the United States under-19 team in scoring at the 2011 FIBA World Championships, his Norcross career ended on a sour note.

Lamb’s senior year, the Blue Devils lost in the state tournament’s Elite 8 after the other team was awarded two free throws at the buzzer. The next season, however, Norcross won the Class AAAAA title, at the same time Lamb was playing in the Big East Tournament.

When Norcross returned to its locker room, not five minutes after the game ended on on March 11, 2011, McMillan checked his cell phone and saw a missed call. On the brink of history at Madison Square Garden, fresh off an 11-point performance in a semifinal win over Syracuse and just weeks away from cutting down the nets at the Final Four, Jeremy Lamb was concerned with his alma mater’s success. He had called to say congratulations.

Alex Prewitt can be reached at aprewitt@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alex_prewitt.

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