While a 6-11 record on the surface may appear to be disappointing for most NBA teams, it should be held with a sense of pride by the Charlotte Hornets. North Carolina’s NBA team looked to be spiraling towards the void of putridness after losing all-star point guard Kemba Walker in free agency over the summer.
At one point the Hornets were 6-7, and of their 11 losses, six of them were decided by ten points or less, including a close loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
This is due in part to the overall growth of the youth on the team, an emphasis for the rebuilding period. Point guards Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier, forwards P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges and shooting guard Malik Monk are all averaging 10 points or more per game for this young Hornets squad.
On top of this, 27-year-old Cody Zeller has looked like a starting-caliber center for the first time in his career, averaging 11.3 points, 8.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists. In the first four games of the season, Zeller posted a double-double, and his scoring and rebounding numbers would register as career-highs, as would his 17.2 PER, though it ties his mark in that regard from last season.
Graham’s growth has been the most remarkable for the team, exploding onto the season as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. After his strong start, Graham was elevated to starter status on the team, and is currently leading the team in multiple categories.
Graham leads the team with 18.2 points and 7.1 assists per game, and has the best 3-point shooting numbers of anyone on the team. Though Washington, Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams have higher percentages from deep than Graham’s 41.1%, Graham has five or more attempts than any of those players, shooting almost nine attempts per game. Graham also leads the team in minutes per game, as well as total minutes, while also averaging 3.5 rebounds and 0.7 steals per game.
Washington, the 12th overall pick in this year’s NBA draft, has also impressed right out of the gate. Though he is in the midst of a four-game skid statistically, Washington has done everything the Hornets would have wanted to see from a rookie. Averaging 11.2 points, 5.2 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, Washington is already emerging as a core piece for the future of the Hornets.
One concern about Washington’s NBA future heading into the draft was his ability to knock it down from deep consistently, as his good percentage at Kentucky was slightly marred by the fact that he only took 2.2 a game. While his attempts are not drastically up, they are improved at 3.1 per game, displaying an upwards trajectory. Nearly 36% of Washington’s shots are from deep, and he has made 25 of his 52 attempts, good for 48.1%.
Also impressive has been the play of point guard Terry Rozier, who the Hornets gave a three-year, $58 million deal over the summer to replace the role of Walker on the team. Rozier is averaging 17.4 points, 4.4 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals per game, and though his shooting numbers have not been great, Rozier has the highest usage percentage on the team of players that play regularly, so his numbers have the highest risk of declining.
Despite this, Rozier is shooting the best field goal percentage of his career, hitting shots at a 42.8% rate, which is a sign of improvement for the 25-year-old, whom many questioned the signing of at the time with such a huge contract. Rozier has emerged as an all-around team player for the squad, with 22.3% of his offensive possessions resulting in an assist, and leading the team in shooting fouls drawn.
Head coach James Borrego deserves some commendation on his minute management between veterans and young players so far in the season. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is barely even playing, and Williams’ and Bismack Biyombo’s minutes are all near career-lows. Batum has only appeared in six games, despite being the top-paid player for the Hornets, though this is partially due to injury, and he is seemingly playing above Dwayne Bacon, who did not play in the Hornets last loss, despite being active and a starter in the beginning of the season.
The Hornets take on the Miami Heat Monday, Nov. 25 at 7:30 p.m., with both teams coming off of disappointing losses, though the game is in Miami, giving the 11-4 Heat, who are undefeated at home, a significant advantage. After this, the Hornets get to play the Detroit Pistons first at home on Wednesday, Nov. 27 and then in Detroit on Friday, Nov. 29.
From there the Hornets have to take on the top dog of the Eastern Conference thus far, the Milwaukee Bucks, in an away game, before the team gets a five-game home stand, with teams like the Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards and Atlanta Hawks visiting. All visiting teams during this stretch have a combined 27-51 record this season.
If the Hornets are able to take care of a relatively easy schedule coming up, they could actually find themselves in the playoff picture through what would be 26 games after the home stand. This is a far cry from preseason predictions that had the Hornets struggling to win even 10 games this season, establishing an early culture and identity for a team that desperately needed it.