Charlotte Hornets 2020-21 Season Preview: 5 things to watch for

 By Chase Whitney

December 15, 2020 (updated)

Photo: Chris Carlson / AP

With their four-game preseason sets against the Raptors and Magic wrapped up, the Hornets will play their first regular season basketball game in over nine months on December 23. Things have come together quickly due to the rushed nature of training camps during the pandemic, but there are still lots of questions to be asked.

Many teams may have had more roster turnover this year than Charlotte, but few teams changed the outlook of their franchise in such a significant way. The Hornets addition of Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball raises their ceiling, while drafting Vernon Carey Jr., Nick Richards and Grant Riller bolstered the depth of their young talent.

Let’s take a look at what could contribute as important factors in the Hornets 2020-2021 season:

The LaMelo Ball effect

It didn’t take long for LaMelo’s star to shine bright in Charlotte. He’s made a handful of highlight-reel plays in his preseason outings with NBA Twitter buzzing like we’ve rarely experienced since the team’s return as the Hornets. LaMelo plays with flair, enjoyment and, most of all, passion. He is a franchise-changing playmaker with positional versatility at 6’7” and is a legit one-of-one passer; the things he does on the court are not often replicated. Sure, he may not be an efficient scorer as a rookie, but very few rookies are efficient scorers. While he has a solid floater and good touch around the rim, his frame just hasn’t caught up to his mind yet. Many will harp on his shot mechanics, but again, a rookie having bad shooting mechanics is not the end of the world, and LaMelo’s generational talent as a playmaker far surpasses concerns he has a scoring threat. Efficiency will come in due time. More importantly, there truly are not many players that come into the league with LaMelo’s combination of court vision, feel for the game, and ball-handling skills.

Development of the young core

Despite Gordon Hayward and LaMelo Ball getting most of the attention in the shortened offseason, the continued improvement of Devonte’ Graham, PJ Washington, Miles Bridges, Malik Monk, and the rest of the young core will be an “addition” in and of itself. Coach James Borrego has mentioned throughout his pressers that he emphasizes ball movement, playmaking and three-point shooting in his offensive system and, if the young core can improve in those areas collectively, it will allow players like Bridges and Monk to take on bigger roles. 

Graham’s in-between game becoming more reliable and improving his 39.7 field goal percentage from inside the arc could solidify his status as one of the league’s top scoring guards. If Washington can become the modern playmaking small-ball center that Borrego envisions him as, it’s possible the team moves to a smaller system with Washington starting at the five-spot. Bridges and Monk ooze potential and explosive athleticism. If both can become more consistent playmakers and off-ball defenders it will be hard to keep them off the floor even with established vets in Hayward and Terry Rozier ahead of them.

Gordon Hayward’s health

Fans may see Hayward’s health as the biggest “if” in the Hornets’ upcoming season, but it shouldn’t be too much of a concern. His gruesome leg injury in 2017 and broken hand in 2019 were both freak injuries, and the ankle sprain he suffered in the Orlando bubble doesn’t seem to bother him anymore. He’ll certainly miss games for rest, load management, and/or standard minor injuries but, in the big picture, Hayward’s health is not as much of a concern in Charlotte as it had been in Boston, where he posted 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game while shooting 50 percent from the field as their fourth option last season. Hayward is also a really good isolation scorer, averaging 1.15 points per possession per Even though Borrego’s system preaches ball movement, his consistency will be relied upon when the Hornets’ outside shooters go cold and the team needs a bucket in crunch time.

Who will step up as the leader of the team?

It’s tough to predict who will rise as leaders in the locker room, but there are definitely good options to choose from. Bismack Biyombo was re-signed for a one-year $3.5 million contract as a veteran presence, and he’s also one of the vice presidents of the NBA Players Association. Terry Rozier and Cody Zeller are the rotation’s established veterans who have spent time with the franchise, more so Zeller than Rozier, but Borrego had credited Rozier’s leadership throughout the off-season after he gathered some of the young players for workouts in Miami. Hayward is the only player on the roster that’s in his thirties but, as we all know, he just joined the team. Still, his playoff experience and All-Star capabilities will provide guidance for a young team trying to find its way in the suddenly competitive Eastern Conference.

Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges and Malik Monk will also be counted on to provide leadership despite being young and developing players themselves. Being in Charlotte for more than two seasons renders you a “vet” these days, which speaks to the changes this franchise has gone through.

Properly valuing trade assets and cap space

Despite the newfound goal for a playoff berth, the Hornets are still a “rebuilding” team. Most of the contributors are still developing on a rookie-scale contract, and the team is still many pieces away from becoming a true contender for a championship. For General Manager Mitch Kupchak, maximizing the value of their trade and draft assets while maintaining open cap space is crucial to the construction of this team going forward; rebuilding teams cannot afford to squander asset-accumulating opportunities. Zeller’s expiring contract could be valuable at the deadline and Rozier has garnered trade interest after becoming one of the league’s premier catch-and-shoot three-point marksmen (ranking fifth in catch-and-shoot three-point percentage last season per despite having $39 million in salary on the books. As long as Kupchak holds on to the Hornets’ 2021 draft picks (the 2021 draft is loaded), they’ll have a chance to grab a solid prospect next year, keeping their $27-29 million in available cap space. 

The regular season will soon be underway for the Hornets. Expectations will be higher than normal this year– as they should be– but with the new collection of talent and flash in the city, regardless of their final record, it should be fun to watch. Will Hayward return to All-Star form? Will LaMelo, Devonte’, PJ and Miles grow into stars right before our eyes? It’s been nine long, boring months, but we’re finally here to see.  

The Charlotte Hornets kick off the new season on December 23 against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Check out the full 2020-21 Charlotte Hornets schedule.

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