Why Ben Lammers might be the ACC’s most improved player

Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers (44) shoots as North Carolina forward Luke Maye (32), and forward Tony Bradley (5) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec 31, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers (44) shoots as North Carolina forward Luke Maye (32), and forward Tony Bradley (5) defend during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Dec 31, 2016, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

Before Georgia Tech’s game Saturday against No. 9 Louisville, center Ben Lammers picked out a quiet spot on the McCamish Pavilion floor to stretch. However, a TV cameraman soon found him and placed his camera no less than two feet away from Lammers’ face, Tech assistant coach Eric Reveno recalled.

It’s commonplace for a televised basketball game, a shot for commentators to talk over as they preview the game. It just wasn’t particularly comfortable to Lammers, an unassuming sort.

“He had a smile and sort of walks away,” Reveno said.

A junior from San Antonio, Lammers is not particularly interested in the spotlight, but it has come to find him this season. In a trying season for the Jackets, one that will continue Thursday with their ACC matchup at home against Clemson, Lammers has been Tech’s star and linchpin.

“I just think he’s one of the most improved players, not only in the conference but the country,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said this week after Lammers scored a career-high 24 against the Cardinals in a 65-50 Tech loss. “He has an outstanding mid-range shot, he’s a terrific shot blocker, has a good low-post game, gets off his feet, he’s athletic. He does it all that you’d want from a big man.”

The numbers help explain it. A year ago, playing behind big men Charles Mitchell and Nick Jacobs, Lammers averaged 3.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 blocks in 14.8 minutes per game. This season, he has started every game and is averaging 14.9 points (19th in the ACC going into Wednesday’s games), 9.9 rebounds (third) and 3.3 blocks (first) in 34.2 minutes per game. His free-throw shooting percentage is up from 50.0 to 77.4 percent.

The numbers don’t speak entirely to the value that he has brought to the Jackets. As Tech’s best and most consistent scorer, best rebounder, perhaps its best passer and as the only post player whom coach Josh Pastner trusts for an extended run, Lammers is depended upon to an absurd degree.

“If he doesn’t play well, it’s almost impossible for us (to win),” Pastner said. “We need him to be really good for us, game in and game out.”

Tech’s dependence on Lammers might be best explained in his average of 34:12 minutes per game, fifth in the ACC and tied for 85th nationally. Reveno, who has coached since 1997, said he had never had a post player log the minutes Lammers is playing. He was on the floor for 39 against Louisville.

Of the 251 other players averaging the most minutes in Division I, none are centers. Of the 84 players ahead of him, only three others are 6-8 or taller. It’s a little bit like asking a bullpen closer to move into the starting rotation.

“I’ve played against coaches that played (big) guys 38, 39 minutes, and I’ve always been kind of amazed,” said Reveno, who himself is 6-8 and played for Stanford. “It’s hard to do.”

Lammers’ potential was evident last season, particularly with his rebounding, defense and court vision. Against Houston in the opening NIT game, for instance, he scored nine on 4-for-4 shooting with five rebounds and two blocks in 22 minutes. But the expansion of his offensive game has been considerable. Often sharing the floor with high-scoring guards Marcus Georges-Hunt and Adam Smith, Lammers took a shot every 6.1 minutes of play. This season, with Pastner running the offense through him, it’s 3.2 minutes per field-goal attempt.

He is playing with an aggressiveness as he looks for his shot — jumpers, low-post moves and drives from the high post — whips the ball to the perimeter and squeezes in deft bounce passers to cutters for backdoor layups.

“I think I always had it in me, but whether or not I actually would project it onto the floor the way it has, I didn’t quite know if it was going to work out,” Lammers said.

He has a mentor in Reveno, a renowned big-man coach who sent numerous centers and power forwards to the NBA as an assistant coach at Stanford. Reveno has encouraged Lammers to be more aggressive and sought to help Lammers develop into the best version of himself. Lammers’ fadeaway jumper is an example.

Said Lammers, “I’m not going to say he’s a big fan of it, but it’s like, he sees it goes in a fair amount of times, so then he’s like, Well, I guess you’re going to shoot it, so we might as well work with it.”

Reveno hesitates to take responsibility for his development, praising Lammers for the work he has put in. He does acknowledge helping Lammers see the value in being more assertive. Reveno said that he has tried to frame it in a way “that’s not selfish. He wants for the team to be successful, and on this play, you’re the best option here. The defense is playing you this way. It’s not selfish for you to shoot.”

Forward Rand Rowland, Lammers’ roommate and practice sparring partner, has seen it coming from the time they were freshmen.

“It’s still impressive every time, but at the same time, it’s regular Ben,” Rowland said. “At one of the games the other day, I forget which one, he did the spin move from the foul line. I was like, I’ve been waiting on him to do it in game because I’ve seen it in practice.”

There is plenty of room to grow. Reveno wants to see him use more pump fakes and counter moves and embrace the physical nature of the position. Still, he’s in the conversation to make All-ACC. The conference’s most improved player award seems his to lose. Reveno and Pastner both believe he has a shot at the NBA.

Trying to encapsulate Lammers’ importance, Pastner said that without him, Tech’s margin for error isn’t zero, but grasped to communicate a space even more miniscule.

“It’s infinity?” he asked. “I don’t know what’s the other word. He’s a bona fide, really good ACC player, and he’s so important to our team in many areas.”