Hornets have stayed afloat despite injuries thanks to the play of Dennis Smith Jr.

By Chase Whitney

November 3, 2022

Photo: Phelan M. Ebenhack / AP

The 2022-23 NBA season has just passed the two-week mark. The Hornets currently sit at 3-5 after a whirlwind of a start. LaMelo Ball has yet to play a single minute this season, but Charlotte has been able to tread water through one of the tougher portions of the schedule.

Ball seems close to returning from a preseason ankle sprain, as does Terry Rozier, who played in the first two games but suffered an ankle sprain of his own and has been sidelined since. Both have been spotted on the floor at practice recently, along with Cody Martin, who is a bit further away from returning after suffering a quad injury in the first game of the season. To make matters even worse, Gordon Hayward sat the second half against Chicago with left shoulder soreness, though there’s no word on the timetable of that injury. Outside of the role players that have stepped up, it’s been hard to truly gauge the potential of this Hornets squad due to how unhealthy they’ve been so far.

Apart from injury woes, there’s been a lot of positivity surrounding this team. Dennis Smith Jr.’s career revival is one of the coolest stories to emerge from the early portion of this season. He’s kept the Hornets afloat offensively as the main distributor, developing a connection with the bigs in pick-and-roll and finding cutters and corner shooters with frequency while spearheading the team’s 13th-ranked defense. Smith is fifth in the NBA with 2.3 steals per game and pulling down 4.3 rebounds per outing, showing vastly improved off-ball activity and decision-making.

Center Nick Richards has also been a pleasant surprise coming off the bench for the Hornets. The 42nd overall pick in 2020 acquired through a draft-day trade has averaged 10.4 points on 65% shooting with 6.4 rebounds per game.

At this point, the sample size is large enough to conclude that head coach Steve Clifford has adjusted his approach to basketball and added some modernized twists since his first tenure. Per Cleaning The Glass, Charlotte has steered away from getting back in transition at the cost of sacrificing offensive rebound chances, taking a higher percentage of their shot attempts at the rim. Clifford is adapting his coaching principles to the strengths of this roster while using his schemes to try and cover for its shortcomings.

What to watch for 

Keep an eye on the injury report. Once Ball, Rozier and Martin are available, we’ll be able to paint a much clearer picture of this team. Until then, enjoy Clifford getting the most out of unheralded players, much like he did during his first go-round with the Hornets. With how low expectations were on this team during the preseason, a 3-5 start minus the best player, best shooter and best perimeter defender is nothing to scoff at.

The Hornets kick off a three-game home swing after taking on Ja Morant and the Grizzlies in Memphis on Friday. The Brooklyn Nets come to town on Saturday (Nov. 5) followed by the Washington Wizards (Nov. 7) and the Portland Trailblazers (Nov. 9).

Check out the remaining 2022-23 Charlotte Hornets season schedule.

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