The Mavericks knew Ricky Ledo would be a project - he was ineligible for his only season in college and hadn't played a meaningful game since high school when they selected him with the no. 43 pick. He spent most of his rookie season in the D-League, where he put up decent but unspectacular numbers. In all likelihood, he's still several years away from being able to contribute in the NBA. The problem for him is that patience at this level is not unlimited, even for young guys with potential.
If he wants to see a worst-case scenario, all he has to do is look at Doron Lamb, a third-year NBA player who's coming into camp in Dallas without a guaranteed contract and fighting for a chance to get back into the league. Two years ago, Lamb was Ledo. He was taken at no. 42 overall in the 2012 draft, a year before Ledo was picked. He has bounced around the NBA ever since, a victim of forces that were mostly outside of his control.
Like Ledo, Lamb was a McDonald's All-American who didn't expect to stay long in college. He was part of John Calipari's second recruiting class at Kentucky, the one sandwiched between John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in 2010 and Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in 2012. He averaged 13 points a game on 49 percent shooting in two seasons of college, starting on two Final Four teams where he excelled as a shooter and a secondary ball-handler.
As one of the most experienced players on a team that went 38-2 and breezed to a national championship, there wasn't much left for Lamb to prove at the college level. He declared for the draft after his sophomore season, but he was overshadowed by his more high-profile teammates, four of whom - Davis, MKG, Terrence Jones and Marquis Teague - went in the first round. Lamb became one of a record six players drafted from that Kentucky team.
At 6-foot-4, 210, and without elite athleticism, Lamb projected as a combo guard stuck between positions at the next level. He could handle the ball, run a pick and roll and find the open man, but he wasn't a natural point guard and he didn't have much experience running a team. The strength of his game was running off screens and using the threat of his shot to attack close-outs, but he didn't have the size to match up with the bigger shooting guards at the NBA level.
Despite his limitations, Lamb's ability to shoot and handle the ball meant he had a chance to carve out a spot in an NBA rotation, if given the right role. The problem for a second round pick is that NBA teams aren't looking at fit at that point in the draft - they are just throwing stuff at the wall and hoping something sticks. That's what happened to Lamb with the Milwaukee Bucks, who didn't have much invested in him and didn't have a real need for his skill-set.
After four months in Milwaukee where he rarely got consistent playing time, he became a salary throw-in when they grabbed J.J. Redick at the trade deadline. Along with Tobias Harris and Beno Udrih, he was shipped to an Orlando Magic franchise in the beginning of a full-fledged rebuilding movement, having moved Dwight Howard the summer before. Harris was the main attraction for the Magic - Lamb was just along for the ride.
With a first-year head coach and a first-year GM in charge in Orlando, Lamb walked into a pretty chaotic situation. Over the course of the season, 18 players got significant playing time for them. Guys were coming and going and the team was losing games left and right - the veterans were looking out for their stat-lines and eyeing the exits while the young players were left to sink and swim on their own, without much of a set system to fall back on.
There was more stability in Lamb's second season with the Magic, but they were still one of the worst teams in the NBA. Even worse, as a shooting guard, he was backing up their best player - Arron Afflalo - as well as the No. 2 overall pick in the draft - Victor Oladipo. Orlando was also committed to developing another young combo guard - E'Twaun Moore - who had a crucial four-month head start on Lamb with the franchise. There just weren't many minutes to go around.
That's how it goes for a second-round pick, especially one without the physical tools to ever be a full-time starter in the NBA. Guys who max out as seventh or eighth men fall through the cracks all the time. The Top 100 players in the world are almost all in the NBA, but after that it gets pretty jumbled. Often, the difference between a guy who carves out a career as an NBA bench player and one who winds up bouncing around Europe is opportunity.
Lamb's ceiling is probably around Gary Neal, a 6-foot-4 combo guard who spent parts of four seasons in Europe before catching on with the San Antonio Spurs as a 26-year old in 2010. The three-point shot is already there - Lamb is a career 39% three-point shooter in the NBA and he shot 48 percent from 3 in college. The question is whether he can bring anything else to the table - at this point in his career, he's not a great defender, finisher, passer or rebounder.
The statistics bear that out, as there isn't much in Lamb's Basketball Reference page that excites you beyond his three-point percentage. He played about 12 minutes a game in his two seasons in Milwaukee and Orlando and nothing he did in that time screams sure-fire NBA player. However, at 22, he is still young enough to turn things around. At the same age, Gary Neal was the best player on a Towson team that finished under .500 in the CAA.
The interesting thing is that despite having far more experience than Ledo, Lamb is only nine months older. After attending four different high schools, Ledo ended up entering college as a 20-year old, which might explain why he was in such a rush to go pro. Lamb, in contrast, was only 18 when he enrolled at Kentucky. As a result, Lamb is a 22-year old with four years of high-level basketball under his best and Ledo is a 22-year old with only one.
When evaluating young players, age is more important than experience, as you don't want to hold it against a guy for being promoted and playing up against better competition. In all likelihood, Lamb and Ledo will be spending a lot of time going at each other in training camp and they should be operating at a fairly even playing field. Whether or not Ledo can hold off an NBA vagabond like Lamb will go a long way towards showing whether he can hack it.
Neither is an elite athlete and neither is capable of running point for an extended period of time, so they will both have to make it as score-first wing players. The big edge Ledo has is size - at 6-foot-6, 200, he can slide between shooting guard and small forward, although Ledo's lack of elite length mitigates the difference a little. Where Lamb could have an advantage is his ability to stretch the floor, as Ledo shot only 32 percent from 3 in the D-League last season.
Given the lack of differentiation in their profiles, the Mavs will probably stick with the guy they have more experience with and more of an investment in. The tie goes to Ledo - Lamb is going to have into camp and take his job. That's life in the NBA, where there are 10 guys with just as much talent who want your spot. This is only Ledo's second season and the clock is already ticking. Even if he beats out Lamb, he will have to do the same thing again next year.