Hornets

Are the Hornets the NBA’s Biggest Buzz?

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With the second half of the 2021 NBA season underway, it’s safe to say the Charlotte Hornets have been one of the most surprising and exciting teams in the entire league.

Just last season (which feels like an eternity ago), Charlotte placed last in points per game, averaging just under 103. Along with this discouraging metric, the Hornets also had the worst field-goal percentage out of any team at 43.4%.

To make matters even uglier for Charlotte, the Hornets (at the time) did not have a single player who averaged twenty points. When putting that into perspective, there are 39 players this year averaging that mark or higher. The only players on the Hornets’ roster who averaged over fifteen points per game last season were starters Devonte’ Graham (18.2 PPG) and Terry Rozier (18 PPG). Then 21-year-olds Miles Bridges (13 PPG) and P.J. Washington (12.2 PPG) followed.

Essentially, the 2019-2020 Hornets had the NBA’s worst offense and were arguably the league’s most boring team.  

Fast forward to the 2020 Draft Lottery. Charlotte had only a 6% chance of landing the number one overall pick. Originally projected to have the No. 8 or 9 pick, the Hornets struck gold and landed the No. 3 overall selection. With the 2020 draft class limited in star power, landing a top-three pick was crucial for a team seeking a franchise-altering player.

Of the athletes listed in the draft pool, only three stood out as star-potential possibilities– Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, Memphis’ James Wiseman and international sensation LaMelo Ball. With Minnesota selecting Edwards first overall and Golden State choosing Wiseman second, Charlotte took the youngest Ball.

The Backcourt

LaMelo is a swagger-filled teenager who has been in the spotlight since he was in middle school. LaMelo’s older brother and current Pelican Lonzo Ball’s professional career has been filled with occasional highs but frequent lows. Though known to be an above-average playmaker and defender, Lonzo’s jumpshot got off to a rough start.

In his rookie season, Lonzo shot just 36% from the field, 30% from three, and a disgusting 41% from the free-throw line. LaMelo has vastly outperformed his brother comparatively thus far, posting 45/38/80 shooting splits thus far.

The aspect most admirable about LaMelo is his natural feel and sense for the game. He is quick but cautious. Aggressive yet unselfish. Smooth and savvy.

Ball plays like he’s on the Harlem Globetrotters, and it actually works. Charlotte is still playing with a majority of its roster from last season, yet within a year have become must-see TV every time they play. Could it be the addition of veteran forward Gordon Hayward? Possibly. But adding Ball into this young, springy, electric core has simply changed the entire future of the Charlotte franchise. Alley-oops, flashy passes and tomahawk dunks are routinely expected each night. 

Next to Melo are the aforementioned Rozier and Graham. Both are dynamic and athletic guards who can score both inside and out. Formerly a Boston Celtic, Rozier made a name for himself by impressing both NBA fans and critics in the 2018 playoffs, averaging 16.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists per game that postseason.

In the 2019 offseason, the Hornets signed Rozier to a hefty three-year, $56.7M contract, which was highly criticized at the time due to Rozier’s numbers plummeting in his final season with Beantown (9.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists per game).

In his second season with Charlotte, however, Rozier has proven himself a reliable starting point guard; not just a solid backup. His nickname “Scary Terry” fits the Louisville guard perfectly due to his freakish athleticism for a small-sized player (Rozier is just over six feet tall). 

This season is Rozier’s best yet. He’s averaging career highs in points per game (20.4), three-point (43% on 7.9 attempts!) and field-goal percentage (48.2%). It goes without saying that Rozier’s progression and improvement over the course of this season has been a crucial fraction to Charlotte’s eye-popping season.

On the flip side, Devonte’ Graham has shown signs of regression this season. A once-MIP candidate last season, Graham has taken a major step back in almost every statistic. Could it be that the Hornets do not rely on Graham to be a main scorer this season due to all of their other options?

Possibly. But it’s hard to ignore Graham’s subpar shooting percentages (35.8% FG, 35.9% 3PT). Despite his weaker performances this season, Graham is still a part of this young, developing core and an important part of their scoring DNA.

Homeward Hayward

One of the more overlooked free-agent acquisitions this offseason was Gordon Hayward, who inked a lucrative four-year, $120M contract. While this was a lengthy and expensive deal for a player who averaged only 17.5 points per game last season, Hayward has played at a near All-Star level for the Hornets. Putting up numbers that mirror his 2017 All-Star campaign in Utah, it’s pretty safe to say the 11-year veteran has returned to his former self after nearly three years of injury-riddled campaigns.

In Charlotte, Hayward was given the opportunity to become the first option on a team, something he could never do in Boston with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. It’s important to have veterans on a growing team– they are critical for developing younger players as well as being supportive, encouraging voices in the locker room. With Hayward, you can always count on him to provide points, be unselfish, rotate on defense and make right decisions. He’s the blueprint of what a teammate should look like.

Frequent-Flyer Miles

Of all the above-listed players, my favorite player in a teal-blue pinstripe jersey is third-year forward Miles Bridges. One of the league’s most vicious dunkers, Bridges brings tip-top athleticism to this Hornets squad. He and LaMelo have been the NBA’s best alley-oop duo since LeBron James and Norris Cole. Not only can Bridges end up on your Twitter timeline with a highlight play, he’s also a player who can stretch the floor and hit three-pointers.

In 2020-21’s first half, Bridges averaged 10 points per game on 38% from deep. It’s been fun to see him develop into a more-reliable three-point shooter while maintaining his incredible athleticism.

Alongside Bridges in Charlotte’s frontcourt is P.J. Washington, an everyday starter in two seasons with the team. In 92 appearances, Washington has averaged 12.4 points, 5.8 rebounds 2.4 assists and 1.0 steals per game. Even though he hasn’t been consistent, Washington has exemplified potential of becoming a strong interior defender. 

Though the Hornets currently rank 17th in defense this season, Charlotte can end the season as one of the better defensive teams, especially with a defensive-minded coach in James Borrego. 

Malik Monk

Malik Monk has finally shown that he can have a lengthy career in the NBA this season, becoming a spark-plug scorer off the bench. Monk’s previous three seasons had been underwhelming compared to his exciting freshman year at Kentucky alongside De’Aaron Fox. He has been plagued with poor three-point shooting (28% in 2019-2020), lazy defense and abysmal foul rates (1.3 FTA in 17.6 MPG).

In a contract year, however, Monk has turned on the jets and has become a quality sixth man for Charlotte. This season, Monk is averaging career highs in points (13.1 PPG), three-point field goal percentage (42.5%), and field-goal percentage (45.6%). He has been an important scoring staple coming off the bench and is a great replacement for Rozier, Graham or Ball. 

A Buzz-Worthy Core

It’s been nothing short of exciting to watch the Hornets blossom into a team full of potential. Just last year, many would argue Charlotte was in a terrible place and faced a bleak future among all NBA franchises. While the Hornets have had a history of poor drafting, things have started to change and the future finally looks bright for Charlotte.

With LaMelo Ball, P.J. Washington, Terry Rozier, Miles Bridges and Gordon Hayward all meshing together well, the Hornets have gained something they’ve lacked for nearly two decades: a solid, young, exciting core. Veteran bigs Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo both understand their role in running to the rim, setting screens, protecting the paint and grabbing rebounds. Twin guards Caleb and Cody Martin bring energy, hustle and ball movement onto the floor when called upon. 

Never in a million years would I ever have thought the Charlotte Hornets would be my favorite team to watch (besides the Nuggets of course). But it’s happening. 

Last and certainly not least, the announcing is just impeccable.

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