Here’s what we’ve learned about the Hornets so far after one week of basketball

 By Chase Whitney 

December 31, 2020

Photo: AP Photo/Brandon Wade

The Hornets season began with a bit of bad luck with Cody Zeller getting sidelined for four to six weeks with a fractured hand, but this season feels a bit different with star rookie LaMelo Ball catching so much national attention. Though somewhat inconsistent early, his highlight reel plays and 8-for-15 start from beyond the arc is creating buzz in the city like never before. 

The team has only played four games, but there is already a plethora of interesting Hornets topics to dive into after a week.

Hayward and Terry earning their pay?

One thing has been established during the early parts of Charlotte’s season: Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier are earning their salary. Maybe Rozier more so than Hayward, but Hayward did tally 28 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the Hornets’ shocking win over the Brooklyn Nets. He now averages 19.8 points, six assists and 5.5 rebounds per game through the first four contests. Like he did with Boston, Hayward has positively affected the game for his team outside of box score production, and even that has been pretty good so far.

On the other hand, Rozier’s stellar three-point shooting from last season may be here to stay. So far, Rozier is canning 44 percent of his non-corner three-point attempts, which is good for the 91st percentile among all players in the league, according to Cleaning the Glass. A lot of these shots are coming off the dribble, over screens, or in transition. His percentages are due to come down to Earth a bit in the coming weeks, but the underlying point is that Rozier’s emergence as one of the NBA’s top three-point marksmen is legit. He’s established himself as one of the top options in the team’s offensive hierarchy, and his intensity and consistency on defense is rivaled by few players on the roster. Plus, the posterization of Kevin Durant in the win over the Nets is a career highlight that many fans will never forget. 

The Hornets have a small margin of error and need most of their rotation players to play up to their ability to succeed, but Hayward and Rozier have different responsibilities as the highest-paid veterans on the Hornets. Both will be relied upon for big-time production if this team wants a chance at the postseason.

Can PJ Washington get back on track?

If one were to ask any Hornets fan “Which player on the team has left the most to be desired so far this season?” many would probably answer that it’s PJ Washington. It’s way too early in the year to hold bad performances against such young players on a team that had little to no training camp during a pandemic, but Washington’s rough patches have been pretty rough. But, the Hornets did get a solid game out of Washington in their win over the Nets. He notched a 14-point 12-rebound double-double, and he scored 18 points on 7-15 from the field against the Thunder, so it’s not like he’s lost his ability– he’s just a young player shaking off the rust after a long layoff. 

Washington hurt himself when he left the game against the Nets after suffering an ankle sprain, but thankfully it wasn’t a long-term injury and he should be fine going forward. The Hornets need Washington to be at 100 percent in order for the team to succeed.

New role for Devonte’?

Through four games this season, Devonte’ Graham has accumulated 28 assists while scoring 46 points on 52 shot attempts. Some of his scoring struggles may be accredited to rust, but the bigger reason could be that he’s adjusting to a new role. Gordon Hayward has nudged out Graham as the clear-cut No. 1 scoring option for the Hornets, which will require him to find a rhythm on offense while having the ball in his hands a little less. He’s the most steady playmaker on the team, boasting an impressive 5.70 assist-to-turnover ratio, per NBA.com.

Graham has ratcheted up the defensive intensity as well. He, like a lot of the young Hornets, appears to have gotten stronger over the offseason and that bodes well for him on the defensive end. His screen navigation has gotten better, his rebounding has improved, and he holds his ground better when moving laterally in front of his man. Graham showed out last year as the top scoring option for Charlotte, and this year he seems poised to keep it up in a new role.

LaMelo watch

After the loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, when LaMelo Ball played an excellent first half but only eight minutes in the second half, Coach James Borrego expressed his thoughts on how difficult it will be to handle Ball’s playing time as a rookie: “It’s tough. There are a number of guys that are capable of handling minutes. I’ve got to juggle that rotation… LaMelo’s got to do his part. It’s my job to do what’s best for this club… I thought LaMelo played extremely well tonight. I’ll look at the film and see what that looks like. Maybe there are some more minutes for him.”

Borrego has never coached a rookie of Ball’s caliber, so it’s understandable that he’s not sure how to properly adjust his minutes yet. Ball absolutely deserves more minutes, but that necessitates taking minutes from an older, more established player, which is not easy to do. Is Borrego supposed to cut Rozier or Graham’s minutes? Is he supposed to not play Malik Monk or Caleb Martin a single second for the rest of the season? Ball’s season has had some ups and downs, but after the 22-point, eight-rebound, five-assist performance against the Mavs, he clearly deserves to see the floor more. Players don’t get drafted third overall to sit on the bench, and he’s proven his ability to make plays on numerous occasions. It’s up to Borrego to figure out how to further balance this guard-heavy rotation.

Ball got off to a rough start this season– he had an 0-for-5 scoreless debut with three turnovers– but as he’s shown throughout his basketball career, his confidence never wavers. Ball has canned eight of his first 15 triples (53.3 percent) and is shooting 45.2 percent from the floor; the biggest knock on him during the draft process was his scoring inefficiency and penchant to take bad shots. Hornets fans should sleep well knowing they got a No. 1 pick-worthy talent at three. 

Free agent pick-ups?

The Hornets’ options at the center position were limited going into the season, but following the loss of Cody Zeller to a fractured hand in the season opener, Borrego’s hand is being forced. Bismack Biyombo is the lone true center in the rotation, and Washington likely can’t or shouldn’t handle every minute at backup center for the entirety of Zeller’s absence. 

Borrego and General Manager Mitch Kupchak, have three options: (1) They could go extra small and feature Jalen McDaniels with the second unit with Washington switching to a defensive-minded role while playing center; (2) They could throw second-round rookies Vernon Carey Jr. or Nick Richards into the fire and let them adapt by trial and error; or (3) They could peruse the free-agent market for an unsigned veteran big. Leaning heavier on Washington and McDaniels is the most likely option at this stage as the Hornets try to get their rotation players up to speed quickly and install their offensive and defensive systems live in-game. McDaniels is shooting 5-for-11 from the field to start the year, and his off-ball defense has had a noticeable impact while he’s on the floor.

It would be surprising if Carey Jr. or Richards don’t see the floor on the second night of back-to-backs or during garbage time while Zeller is sidelined, though Borrego has made a point not to commit to playing them consistent minutes when asked about it in any of his pressers. The Hornets are about to play 10 games in 16 days, so any more hits to their depth will warrant a call for outside reinforcements through free agency.

Check out the complete 2020-21 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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