When Kentucky coach John Calipari watched his team’s win over Indiana after the game ended, one thing almost immediately jumped out at him.
“For all those Kentucky fans that watch it three times, notice how Doron Lamb is clapping on defense and getting in his stance. He's never done that. So he's getting it,” Calipari said. “What I'm saying to him, with more of a motor, he's as good as any guard in the country. I'll say that again. With more of a motor — no coolness; I don't want to see it, don't care — sprint that court, get down in the stance. More of a motor, a Rip Hamilton motor.
“With that, he's as good as any guard in the country, and now you're seeing him as a point guard, wing guard. He's 6-5, makes every free throw, needs to be more physical. That comes with more motor. And he's slowly doing it, and I've been hard on him. But I say to him, I think you're a lottery pick. But go do it. Go take it.”
Lamb, a sophomore, is one of the nation’s best 3-point shooters at 47.4 percent this year and 48 percent overall in his career. He’s just not listed among the nation’s best because he’s not taken enough 3-point shots, something that does not bother him.
“We have a lot of great players and scorers on this team. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn to have a good game. Sometimes you have bad games, sometimes you have good games. My role on this team is to make open shots, be aggressive going to the rim and get my teammates involved by having a high motor and playing defense on our team,” Lamb said.
“Everybody on our team can make shots. If somebody shoots 10 shots, that’s a lot for us really. Some teams have players that shoot 20 shots, but on our team if you shoot 10 shots and get 15 points, that’s a lot. We have great players, a lot of pros on this team that I am happy to play with.”
Lamb says his improved “motor” starts with getting better in practice.
Just bouncing on defense, just talking. Being active and getting 50-50 balls. I think I¿am doing a good job in games with my motor. Bouncing on defense, getting through screens and rebounding the ball. I am way better at it now,” he said.
Calipari has done his best to encourage Lamb to shoot even more.
“He could score 30. If he doesn't shoot it, I'm all over him. I take him out. Because he's not prepared to shoot, he's not — the motor's not moving and he's slowly getting into the shot, sit. If you're not going to shoot the ball, you're not playing for me,” Calipari said. “And I want him to know — he gets on me. About not shooting. That's what I'm getting on you about. Think about it. Are you going to go complain to somebody? But another great kid who's never been coached this way. He's never been challenged this way, and he's responding to it.”
He certainly did in the South Regional semifinal win over Indiana when he relied on getting to the basket to score — he went 8-for-8 at the foul line and 6-for-10 from the field to score 21 points.
“I started the game off being aggressive. They were closing in on real hard on me, so I had a chance to go to the basket. Coach kept telling me to go to the basket and finish strong,” Lamb said.
That did not surprise sophomore teammate Terrence Jones.
“When I¿first seen Doron all he did was drive or shoot mid-range shots. I didn’t see him spot up (for 3-pointers) at all in high school. I knew he could do that (drive),” Jones said. “He is just trying to stay to his role as much as possible, and that’s to make shots for us. Usually guys are finding him and his guy is going in (to help on defense) and we are finding him and he is letting it go. He really can drive the ball and we believe in him to do that.”
To make sure he can do that, he spent some time with his AAU coach back in New York working on his ballhandling in various full-court drills. “It really helped me a lot,” he said.
Teammates know how important Lamb, who had 14 points Sunday against Baylor to increase his career total to 986 points, has been to a second straight Final Four push for Kentucky.
“Doron is a huge part of this team. His ability to score the ball and also get everybody else open looks is a huge part of what we do. He provides a lot of open opportunities for us just because people are afraid to leave him,” senior Darius Miller said. “The way he shoots the ball, he gives us open lanes and stuff like that. He's gotten better pretty much every day since he got here. He's always been a huge part, but he continues to get better. I think that's one of the main key parts for our team.”
“He's really gotten a lot better at playing point guard, just ball handling, trusting himself to go both ways and run down the court and stop and just control the offense like Marquis (Teague) does is just what helps us the most,” Terrence Jones said.
Lamb was a New York standout. He chose UK¿over Kansas, Connecticut, West Virginia and Arizona. He played against former UConn star Kemba Walker in high school.
His mother, Brigitte Grant, had a huge influence on his early career.
“My mom is a big part of my life since I was little. She took me to all my games, even when I¿played different sports she was there for me. I think she did not miss a game my whole life. She traveled everywhere I would go. She would even bring me on the court and make me do crossovers between cones and lay the ball up. She goes hard. She knows the game really well,” Lamb said.
She didn’t let his grades slack, either. When he was in fourth or fifth grade, he wanted to go see high school phenom Sebastian Telfair of Brooklyn play. His mother told him she would take him only if he made 100 on his spelling test.
“The day before the test, my mom would always test me for school. My mom told me if I did not get 100 on the test, I couldn’t go. I had to get 100, and I did. So I got to go to the game and had a great time,” he said.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if Lamb is having a “great time” on the court or not because he seldom shows emotion.
“I have always been playing like that for my whole life. My nickname back home was the Smooth Criminal. They say I was real smooth in my game but I never did a lot hype or screaming.¿I just handle my business and get out of the gym,” he said. “But I always have fun with my teammates. This year we have a lot of jokers on our team. Everybody wants to joke around and go have a lot of fun. We always have jokes for each other and have a great time. I think Anthony (Davis), me and Marquis (Teague) really are the biggest jokers. We are always joking around.”
Lamb joked about his early swimming prowess and says if he was not a basketball player, he feels he could be an Olympic-caliber swimmer.
“He’s really funny. He is a strange person. He does a lot of things that make you laugh and go, ‘I can’t believe you just did that.’ He is a good person. He is just fun to be around,” Jones said. “I know he thinks he can be anything. A singer, rapper. Whatever he thinks he can be, he thinks he can. I have never seen him swim, so I don’t know how good of a swimmer he is.”
This weekend Lamb, though, is all about basketball.¿He knows the national hype Saturday night’s semifinal match with in-state rival Louisville has created and what impact it has had on the Bluegrass.
“We have a lot of pressure on us. Every team we play wants to beat us. All our fans want us to win every game. Everybody thinks we are supposed to win the whole thing. Knock on wood, but we don’t. We had a great season and a great year together. I would be happy with my team no matter what happens,” he said. “But there’s nothing better than the Final Four. I just want to go out and have fun in my second Final Four. A lot of teams don’t make it once, so I know how lucky I am.
“We felt we should have won last year. We know we have to play all 40 minutes and we tell the freshmen we have to play hard and never give up on a possession. We have to help these freshmen in the Final Four. They have never been thought this before so me, Darius and Terrence have to help them and carry them on our backs against Louisville.”