Scott Fowler

Charlotte Hornets believe Jeremy Lamb can be a lion

When veteran Charlotte Hornets center Al Jefferson looks at Jeremy Lamb, he shakes his head in wonder.

“I can’t believe this guy has been sitting on the bench for three years,” Jefferson said. “It’s just mind-boggling to me.”

Lamb played his first three NBA seasons in Oklahoma City, where the shooting guard hardly ever started and averaged a modest 7.0 points per game on teams that featured Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

But the Hornets believe in Lamb enough that they traded for him in June and, after only two games in a Charlotte uniform, handed him a $21 million, three-year contract extension on Monday.

“It’s a great feeling that they trusted me to give me a contract,” Lamb said Tuesday. “This is a fresh start for me.”

The deal sounds like crazy money to me, but then again the money in the NBA is already hard to fathom and is about to spike upward even further. Hey, it’s owner Michael Jordan’s money – he can afford it. The main thing is whether Lamb can play well enough to justify the investment.

The extremely early returns were good Tuesday night. Lamb is still coming off the bench for Charlotte, at least for now, but he scored a team-high 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting in Charlotte’s 25-point blowout win over Chicago.

The performance was so outlandish that it prompted coach Steve Clifford to crack later that he had wanted Lamb’s contract extended Monday because “I knew he was going to shoot 9-for-10 every night.”

Can Lamb sustain anywhere near that level? That’s the question as the Hornets (1-3) enter the fifth game of their season at Dallas on Thursday at 8:30 p.m., with Lamb averaging 13.3 points per game. The Hornets are betting he can, as they didn’t exercise their option on P.J. Hairston (who would have been much cheaper to re-sign for 2016-17) on the same day that Lamb got his lucrative contract extension.

It’s never been a question that Lamb can shoot. “He could always score,” said Kemba Walker, who teamed with Lamb for a season at Connecticut. The Huskies won the national title that season, riding Walker’s back, but Lamb also played a heavy role in that 2011 title.

Lamb stayed one more year at UConn and then was drafted No. 12 overall in 2012 by Houston. Before he ever played a game for the Rockets, though, Lamb was a small part of the James Harden trade and was shipped to Oklahoma City.

From there, things progressed slowly for him. But the Hornets saw enough to believe that Lamb – a career 34.8 3-point shooter – could help them quickly with their scoring problems.

“The thing he possesses is size and skill,” Clifford said. “He can really shoot. I think he’s capable of shooting 40 percent from three. But this is what I didn’t really understand. He’s better off the dribble than I thought. And he can really pass.”

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why he’s been on the bench,” Jefferson said again – it was a point he really wanted to make. “He’s a talented player. Not only can he score the ball, but he’s got a high basketball IQ.”

Although Lamb, 23, has never been known as a defensive stopper, he’s a rangy 6-foot-5 and 185 pounds and is an adequate team defender. It’s his offense that keeps him in the league, though. He worked out much of the summer at the Hornets’ facility after the trade.

“I’m a gym rat,” Lamb said. “I just love being in the gym, whether it’s laying on the court talking to somebody or getting some work in. It’s comfortable for me to be there.”

And Lamb may as well get comfortable. He’s going to be in Charlotte for a long time.

Hornets at Mavericks

When: 8:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: American Airlines Center, Dallas

TV/radio: Fox Sports Southeast/WFNZ-AM 610