Season Preview: After a rough preseason for the Charlotte Hornets (both on and off the court) there is still optimism

 By Chase Whitney

October 22, 2023

Photo: Erik Verduzco / AP

The Charlotte Hornets have had a rough preseason. Injuries, off-court situations, and a 28-point loss in the finale took the wind out of the team’s sails after a win and two close losses. The Hornets have a chance to get back on the court and right the ship when the regular season starts against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday night. For a team that has spent the last year-plus embroiled in controversy, a healthy season with a deeper roster than in year’s past can’t come soon enough. Unfortunately for the Hornets, the off-court issues don’t seem to stop.

After re-signing Miles Bridges in July, it looks like he will play the 2023-24 season on a $7.9 million qualifying offer, serving a 10-game suspension to start the season. But on October 11, reports surfaced that Bridges received a summons and was charged with child abuse and injury to personal property after an altercation allegedly occurred during a custody exchange. Two days later, Bridges turned himself in on an arrest warrant, appeared before a judge, and was released on bond. Since then, there’s been no official word from the NBA or the Hornets on any potential addition to Bridges’ current punishment, but there’s a good chance he’s unavailable for a period of time following his court date on November 13. 

On top of that, Kai Jones was waived during the preseason following a series of social media outbursts where he made several strange comments about his teammates and other NBA players. Brandon Miller was named as a defendant in a federal wrongful death lawsuit stemming from a January 15 shooting he was connected to. Miller drove a car carrying a gun owned by a former teamate, Darius Miles, which resulted in the tragic death of 23-year-old Jamea Jonae Harris. Miller seems unlikely to receive a suspension given that he was not charged in the incident, but it is yet another distraction for the team, and a reminder of the horrific incident. 

The weekend did give Hornets fans some actual basketball-related news to discuss. Saturday, the Hornets waived Terrell Brown Jr., R.J. Hunter and Nathan Mensah from training camp deals. All three players are expected to join the Greensboro Swarm for the 2023-24 season. The moves brought Charlotte’s roster down to 18 players; a full 15-man roster with three Two-Way players (Amari Bailey, Leaky Black, and Theo Maledon). The deadline for teams to be in compliance with the NBA’s 15-man roster limit for the regular season is Monday, October 23. 

It looks like Frank Ntilikina and Edmond Sumner are set to make Charlotte’s opening night roster– Ntilikina is on a deal with only $200k guaranteed, and Sumner on a fully non-guaranteed contract. Both players received minutes as the Hornets’ third guard during the preseason, but during the finale, Ntilikina became the latest to suffer an injury. The Hornets announced that Ntilikina had suffered a non-displacement fracture in his left tibia after taking a hard fall in the game against Boston. Steve Clifford had glowing praise for Ntilikina throughout training camp, calling him an “elite” pick-and-roll defender and the best defender on the team. Ntilikina will be re-evaluated in four weeks. The Hornets will also be without James Bouknight (knee), Cody Martin (knee) and Bryce McGowens (ankle), leaving them with razor-thin backcourt depth. 

There were some bright spots to come from Charlotte’s preseason, though. PJ Washington exploded for 31 points to snap a nine-game preseason losing streak in the win over Oklahoma City, and the Hornets’ starters generally outplayed their counterparts in each of the first three games. As usual, Ball flashed his brilliance, while also displaying improvement in key areas.

First and foremost, Ball’s engagement on defense has ticked up considerably. Not only has he developed pick-and-roll chemistry with Mark Williams on offense, but the two communicate well as a defensive pairing as well. Ball has always utilized his otherworldly basketball IQ and processing speed to collect steals as an off-ball defender, but increased effort when opposing teams run him through screens will go a long way. Efficiency at the rim looks like it has improved as well. Ball made 64.3% of his attempts within five feet of the basket in the preseason, an increase of more than 11% from his career-high of 53% in 2021-22. An uptick in efficiency from the restricted area would force defenses to collapse further on his drives, inevitably leading to more free-throw opportunities and bigger passing lanes to catch open teammates. 

As we learned last year, the Hornets need more than just Ball to be competitive. Terry Rozier is fully healthy after playing 63 games last season (the fewest in a non-shortened season since his rookie year), looking the part of the secondary scorer and playmaker desperately needed in the team’s offense. Gordon Hayward is also healthy and ready to go for the season opener following an 11-point, five-rebound outing against the Celtics. Charlotte needs both Hayward and Rozier on the court as much as possible with the dearth of shot creation and playmaking talent in the bottom half of the depth chart.

Miller has also flashed a ton of potential despite a harrowing 7.7% shooting percentage from 3-point range. The No. 2 pick has shown impressive ability as a downhill playmaker and pull-up scorer, weaving through creases in the defense with veteran guile, utilizing pristine mechanics and touch to get shots off over contests. Clifford remarked multiple times during the preseason that Miller plays the game under control and with poise, deeming him ready for rotation minutes from the jump. Miller could be a potent two-way weapon once he finds his range in the league.

Imagine telling a Hornets fan in 2020, that in 2023, the center rotation would be among the roster’s biggest strengths. That’s now the reality with Mark Williams and Nick Richards patrolling the interior. Clifford has two burly, athletic seven-footers at his disposal, with each offering distinct ancillary skills. Williams has flashed intriguing touch, solid low-post passing, and mobility on the perimeter. Richards, one of the Hornets’ player development staff’s finest products in recent years, brings a level of aggressiveness and physicality matched by few others on the roster.

With the recent injury to Ntilikina and McGowens, Nick Smith Jr. might be in line for a crack at the rotation. Smith, the 27th pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, went through typical rookie highs and lows during the preseason but has the makings of a microwave scorer and secondary playmaker that would fit well in Charlotte’s lineup. Having already taken to veteran guard Terry Rozier, Smith seems to be working towards filling a similar role in the future. There’s a chance he plays a fair share of games with Greensboro this year, but the injury situation may elevate him into the rotation to open the season.

Overall, the Hornets look like a borderline playoff-caliber (likely play-in) team in the preseason. Off-court situations loom large, with the Bridges case in particular hanging a black cloud over the organization. These issues have repeatedly been addressed with very little detail, a disturbing pattern for many fans and media to digest. On the court though, the formula for success is apparent. Clifford can deploy a fast-paced offense, balanced out by a healthy shot diet, paired with an energetic defense to get the most out the roster.

Here’s to another year wishing for the best as the franchise celebrates their 35th anniversary season. The Hornets kick off the NBA season against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday, October 25 at 7 p.m. Check out the full 2023-24 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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