With LaMelo Ball and the additions of Kelly Oubre Jr. and James Bouknight, it’s hard not to be excited about the Hornets

 By Chase Whitney

October 4, 2021

Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP

The Charlotte Hornets and their fans have been waiting since May 18 to wash out the bad taste of a near 30-point play-in tournament drubbing at the hands of the Indiana Pacers. The hectic draft, free agency period, and the Las Vegas Summer League tide us over, but it’s not quite the same as the “real thing.”

Preseason games in the NBA aren’t necessarily the “real thing” either but, nonetheless, we get to see the new-look Hornets lace ‘em up and begin another season, hoping to build off of last year’s momentum. Charlotte’s first preseason game is at the Oklahoma City Thunder on October 4 at 8:00 p.m. EST. They’ll play three more exhibition contests after that before the real thing begins with a rematch against the Pacers on October 20.

Lord knows the holdovers from last year’s squad want to demolish Indiana on opening night to put the embarrassing postseason debut behind them. When the Charlotte Observer’s Rod Boone asked Miles Bridges about the play-in, he said the Hornets are “not going to take any games for granted this season” and every player who has spoken to media about that game has alluded to it leaving a mark on them one way or another. But, the Hornets have more newcomers in 2021-22 than in years past, and there will be an inevitable adjustment period.

The Arrival of Kelly Oubre Jr.

Kelly Oubre Jr. is perhaps the biggest addition to the squad this year, coming to the Queen City on a partially guaranteed two-year $24.6 million deal after a season with Golden State, where he largely failed to meet the standard he’s set for himself as a player. He attributed a dip in 3-point percentage (31.6 percent on 5.2 attempts per game in 20-21) to injuries he battled through with the Warriors and said he’s taking tons of reps to get back to where he was as a shooter. Improved consistency from 3-point range would help tremendously with spacing on the second unit’s halfcourt offense, as Ish Smith, James Bouknight and Cody Martin are all decent long-range shooters at their best, though Bouknight could develop into a shooting threat in due time. Even in a worst-case scenario where his 3-point efficiency doesn’t recover, Oubre Jr. ‘s athleticism and hustle will provide a punch in transition and as a cutter.

The Center Rotation

The biggest question regarding the Hornets’ roster is the center position. Mason Plumlee is a lock to start at the five, but what the minutes look like while he’s sitting remains to be seen. PJ Washington has the upper hand given his experience, but he’s not a natural center and some of his inconsistencies may have arisen last season due to him switching back and forth between roles.

However, the small-ball five experiment with PJ Washington led to the Hornets playing some of their best basketball. Charlotte outscored opponents by 6.1 points with Washington manning the interior, and the defense improved from 113.4 points per 100 possessions to 111.2 points, per Cleaning The Glass. Couple with Head Coach James Borrego stating that “zone will be a part of our package again this year” (per Nekias Duncan) and it seems like there’s a chance the Hornets could play some small-ball this season, too. 

Zone defense concepts were used to simulate rim protection last season since the Hornets didn’t have the personnel to defend the interior, effectively playing man-to-man. Borrego did note that man principles will be the basis of their defense in 2021-22, but NBA teams don’t play zone defense unless they need to, and the Hornets might need to if Vernon Carey Jr., Kai Jones or Nick Richards don’t emerge as reliable backups.

The Rookies

Speaking of Jones; Borrego actually mentioned that he believes the rookie big “will be pushing for minutes” (per AP’s Steve Reed) this season. Jones as a prospect, has tantalizing potential, but it might take some on-court development to fully reach it. Comments made by Borrego on the first day of training camp have to be taken with a grain of salt, but it’s a good sign to see Jones has the endorsement of the staff already.

JT Thor is in a similar situation to Jones, though his path to rotation minutes is a bit murkier. Thor is also a raw, developmental prospect but he flashed some intriguing potential as a versatile frontcourt defender and movement shooter at Auburn and in Vegas. The roads of I-85 from Charlotte to Greensboro will be heavily travelled this season.

Of the three rookies in Charlotte, Bouknight has the best chance to contribute on a nightly basis. He’s proven himself to be an effective slasher and off-ball cutter with explosive athleticism and ability to score off the bounce. For him to elevate the performance of the second unit, he’ll need to expand upon the improvements he made as a facilitator in Summer League and develop his catch-and-shoot jumper since he won’t be nearly as ball-dominant as he was at Connecticut.

Year Two for LaMelo Ball

Coming off of a Rookie of the Year campaign, expectations for LaMelo Ball are high. When Charlotte opted not to retain Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk, then extended Terry Rozier’s contract, they effectively locked in the Ball-Rozier duo as their starting backcourt at least until Ball’s rookie deal is up in 2024. He’s had the keys to the franchise essentially since he was named a starter, but now he’s surrounded by veteran leadership and stability.

Ball averaged 18.1 points, 6.2 assists, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game, shooting 37.9 percent from long-range in his 31 starts. Nothing to scoff at for sure, but improvement from this point will elevate him into the top tier of guards in the NBA.

Ball could stand to add some weight to his 6’6” frame, and that will likely come with time as it does for most young NBA players after they’re given access to world-class training and nutrition specialists. Prior to his wrist injury, he showed the ability to be an efficient long-range shooter both off the catch and off the bounce, but finishing at the rim was consistently his biggest weakness. Cleaning The Glass has him in the 27th percentile among guards with a 54 percent conversion rate (126-234) on field goal attempts at the rim– that’s actually pretty good considering he was a thin 19-year-old that struggled to finish through contact, opting for the wild circus layups we’ve seen him make every so often instead of bodying up the defender and drawing a foul.

Where do the Hornets fit in the landscape of the Eastern Conference?

Like last season, a “good” season from the Hornets may not result in an automatic playoff berth. The East has improved marginally over the past couple of years, and teams like Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and New York improved over the offseason, presumably making it harder for Charlotte to reach the height of fourth place as they did at times in 2020-21. While the Hornets improved their future standing as a franchise, drafting high-upside prospects and keeping their cap sheet clean for years to come with team-friendly contracts and trades, they may not have gotten much better (if at all) in the present-day given the context of the East.

Regardless of their numerical positioning in the conference standings, Charlotte’s youthful squad is bound to have an interesting season at worst, and at best another shot at a dark horse playoff run if things break right health-wise. The front office has built a fast-paced, high-flying squad, and with LaMelo Ball at the helm, it’s hard not to be excited.

Check out the full 2020-21 schedule for the Charlotte Hornets.

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