The Hornets have gotten off to a slow start, but have yet to reach full roster potential

By Chase Whitney

November 12, 2023

Just shy of the 10th game of the 2023-24 season, Charlotte Hornets fans have not had a whole lot to cheer about.

A season-opening win over the Atlanta Hawks was followed by a three-game skid to some of the league’s worst teams, and the 3-6 Hornets have only gotten in the win column twice since opening night over Indiana and Washington. Despite the rough start during one of the softest portions of this season’s schedule, there have still been some bright spots for the Hornets.

Charlotte’s rough start coincided with a LaMelo Ball slump, but those struggles seem to have subsided. Ball has already notched a triple-double (the 10th of his career) three 30-point games in his last four outings. Improved pick-and-roll craft and a noticeable uptick in energy and aggression on defense are crucial elements to Ball’s early-season resurgence, but most of all, the shot is back. After starting the season 8 of 30 from deep, he’s connected on 16 of his 35 3-point attempts in his last four games. He’s shown improved chemistry with his bigs and has effectively balanced scoring and creating for teammates– a heavy burden on a roster lacking playmakers.

That chemistry built between Ball and his bigs has strongly benefited both centers, but particularly Mark Williams. On November 10 against Washington, Williams posted 20 points and a career-high 24 rebounds, the 11th 20-20 game in franchise history.

Williams is surpassing the expectations set for him as the 15th overall pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The vision and accuracy Williams has also flashed as a passer from the high elbows out of ball screens and handoffs help open up the offense, and his finishing touch around the rim is unrivaled by any recent Hornets center not named Al Jefferson. An ultra-wide catch radius gives Ball endless opportunities to throw lobs and pocket passes with creative angles and placement. Defensively, the seven-foot, 240-pound 21-year-old is imposing beyond his years; dominant on the glass, he is an impactful rim protector and more scheme-versatile than many imagined. 

The performance of the wily veteran Gordon Hayward has arguably been the brightest part of the Hornets’ season so far. Before Ball settled in, Hayward was comfortably the best player on the team night in and night out, and his 27-point, nine-assist outing is second only to Ball’s 30-point games in scoring production this season. For the first time since he signed with Charlotte, Hayward spent the summer working on his game and getting into shape opposed to rehabbing an injury. The confidence he built over the summer shows on those hard drives to the rim where he bends and finds angles he may not have been able to reach in previous years. A rejuvenated Hayward is a boon for Charlotte’s top-end rotation and closing lineup.

Ball, Williams and Hayward can’t do it all, though. Offense has not been a strong suit for the Hornets to this point. Despite ranking 8th in offensive rating (thanks in part to the seventh-highest pace of play in the NBA), the Hornets offense often looks disjointed and sluggish in halfcourt settings. The trends and tendencies are a bit antiquated as well; Charlotte is dead last in 3-point attempt rate (28.3 per game) and 3-point percentage (29.6%) by a wide margin, counteracting the team’s league-best mark of 64 points in the paint per game. Head coach Steve Clifford has mentioned multiple times that the team needs to take more threes– watch for that to develop over the next week’s worth of games.

James Bouknight has been cleared for on-court activity following preseason knee surgery, and there’s been no indication Terry Rozier’s groin injury is long-term, and right or wrong, Miles Bridges’ 10-game suspension ends on November 17. Clifford has already said he “expects” Bridges to have a significant role upon his return. With Bridges and Rozier, Charlotte’s rotation could be adding back a whole lot of offensive firepower soon.

Brandon Miller might be the one player on the roster who’s had a neutral impact so far. The second overall pick in the draft hasn’t shot well from deep, but a smooth mid-range game and strong finishing at the rim has buoyed his overall efficiency. Miller is also one of the most versatile pieces of Clifford’s defense, utilizing his 6-foot-9 frame and length to wall off and corral quicker ball handlers. A sprained ankle suffered against the Knicks took him out of the game and might sideline him for a bit, further gutting the Hornets’ depth, but with how quickly Miller settled in to start the season, it shouldn’t take long for the rookie to reintegrate into the lineup once he’s ready to go.

There’s no sugar-coating it; the Hornets have underwhelmed to start the season, but still, the team’s core players are now all playing well. Once the team is healthier and Bridges returns, the picture of what Charlotte might look like down the stretch will become clearer.

Check out the full 2023-24 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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