Hornets Summer League Squad Struggles, but Talent Shines


From the moment NBA commissioner Adam Silver read Brandon Miller‘s name from the envelope on draft night, many in Charlotte were eager to see how their newest roster addition would perform in Las Vegas.

This eagerness came with pessimistic expectations, as many in the Queen City and NBA betting sites were set on the team adding explosive G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson. While adding a talent like Henderson to create a loaded backcourt with LaMelo Ball appeared like a no-brainer to most, the idea of adding a 6’9 shooting wing with high off-ball IQ proved to be too good to pass up for Mitch Kupchak and the Hornets front office.

Charlotte also aided their young group with numerous other draftees, selecting Nick Smith Jr., a lottery pick that slipped through the lottery cracks from Arkansas, as well as James Nnaji and Amari Bailey. While Nnaji seemed like more of a project, the general feeling in CLT was that the other three Hornets selections could have day-one plug-and-play value in the Hornets’ rotation.

Apart from new talent on the way, Charlotte’s Summer League team seemed primed for a possible Las Vegas title run, with the decision to give third-year veterans James Bouknight and Kai Jones Summer League reps. In most cases, third-year players — more specifically first-round selections — being sent to Summer League is rather unheard of.

Instead, this is a more expected move for Charlotte, as both Bouknight and Jones have both struggled to see the floor and produce in their two years with the franchise.

After the conclusion of the California Classic and the main four games of the Las Vegas Summer League, much has been put on the table for both the fanbase and the Hornets front office to observe. While many players lived up to the expectations set in front of them, others seemed to fall deeper into the already large hole they have put themselves in.

New Faces

Brandon Miller

On top of the usual spotlight placed upon a top-three pick, Brandon Miller will always have to endure additional scrutiny because of who was drafted right after him.

Miller and Scoot Henderson already have a media-induced rivalry, despite their careers being in its infancy. Although the comparisons will always be relentless, the reasonable thing to do is analyze how Miller himself plays, and not who Charlotte passed on for him.

Miller showcased the tools for elite three-level scoring, albeit on spotty efficiency. Miller’s six-game sample size left him 38% from the field, as well as 33% from behind the arc. While this appears first glance rather poor, his percentages are largely held down by a 4-of-18 outing against the Lakers, with an eye-popping 0-for-7 shooting night from three.

Apart from this, Miller displayed consistent efficiency, which was the biggest question mark for him after his quite forgettable March Madness shooting splits.

Miller flashed a surprisingly good handle, which was paired with quality passing vision. He even seemed to be able to hold his own on defense, which also was a fear that would reasonably come with a 6-foot-9, 201-pound frame.

If the 20-year-old can find ways to boost his efficiency and work on his fouling problem, the Hornets seemingly nailed this selection.

Nick Smith Jr. 

Nick Smith Jr. is quite the head-scratcher.

He came out of high school as the first-ranked player in the nation but unfortunately battled injury at Arkansas. From a top-10 pick, to late lottery, and then eventually late first round, Smith Jr. seemingly flew under the radar until his name was called. Smith Jr, a crafty combo guard with a tight handle, is in the perfect position to learn under Terry Rozier.

Although he seems to be plagued with tunnel vision at times, Smith Jr. seems to have an arsenal of moves that will effortlessly translate to the league. Much like his fellow first-round selection, there are questions about Smith Jr. and his scoring efficiency. However, Summer League is a time when young players tend to be a bit jittery, so inefficiency is expected.

With his 33-point showing against the Trail Blazers, it’s safe to say the young guard can score, it is just about how consistently can he do it.

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James Nnaji

Nnaji is the poster boy for what is classified as a project in the modern NBA.

Nnaji, 18, is built with a staggering seven-foot, 250-pound frame. He currently plays for Barcelona, so seeing him get professional experience at such a young age is rather encouraging. There’s questions about when he will make Charlotte his home, but for now, development of his skillset is the focus.

In a loaded frontcourt of Mark Williams, Nick Richards and Kai Jones, Nnaji will have to be elite in one category to make him truly stand out. Luckily, Nnaji’s rebounding and shot-blocking may land him a spot on the active roster alone. Thursday’s showing against the Pelicans showed just that, as Nnaji proved to be a force to be reckon with as he posted 12 rebounds and four blocks.

His touch around the rim is rather spotty, but for an 18-year-old who was discovered playing basketball through a Facebook video, Charlotte buying stock in the Nigerian prodigy should be well worth the investment.

Amari Bailey

Amari Bailey’s arrival in Charlotte has a similar but obviously much more low-key feel to when LaMelo Ball was drafted in 2020.

Bailey, a social-media giant, has been largely backed by pages such as Overtime and Ball is Life since his high-school days. The transition to a small market seemed easy for Ball, but the transition for Bailey has yet to be seen. The 6-foot-4 guard flashes playmaking ability, but questions about his shooting in both the mid range and behind the arc explains his fall from lottery to late second round.

Bailey has had two strong showings, with 17-point outings against both the Timberwolves and Warriors. His pick-and-roll game hasn’t seemed to transfer, but that could be because of lack of chemistry. Bailey has showed upside with his slashing, but his lack of shooting ability truly limits him as an offensive threat.

Bailey will be someone to keep an eye on, but he may benefit by spending some time in Greensboro to get his shot in order.

Back… Again?

James Bouknight

Seeing Bouknight back in Summer League is a disappointing sight for most.

Coming out of UConn, Bouknight was seen as an elite shot maker with surprising athleticism. Leading up to the draft, Bouknight’s stock continued to rise, with many seeing him as a top-six lock. When he seemingly fell into the lap of Charlotte at pick eleven, passing on him was simply not on the table.

In two years with the Hornets, Bouknight’s stint has been less than ideal. He has averaged 5.1 points per game, and has seen his fair share of time in Greensboro. Apart from on the court woes, Bouknight hasn’t exactly been the best off the court either, as seen with his DWI right before the season. Lack of pro-level production combined with questions about his maturity led Bouknight back to Vegas.

The expectation for a third-year player in Summer League is to dominate. By the time a lottery pick is in their third year, they (should) have their role figured out. Being in Vegas at this point is meant to be a wake-up call, not another young player simply getting reps. Kupchak and Co. most likely view this as the best way to get the most out of Bouknight, creating a back-against-the-wall situation that’ll hopefully force production.

Unfortunately, for the majority of Summer League, this was very much the opposite. Bouknight has struggled with his shotmaking — his pre-draft strength — as well as finishing around the rim. Bouknight often appears down on himself, exhibiting poor body language, including jogging back in defense after ill-advised passes and shots.

From a fan’s prospective this is a tough thing to watch, so one would imagine the front office isn’t quite pleased either.

To Bouknight’s credit, he has shown much improved defense. He’s seemingly bulked up, which has been useful in his newfound ability to cut off ball handlers. Although he has low assist numbers and some questionable decisions with his ball in his hands, Bouknight’s confidence with the ball seems much better. His downhill presence after grabbing a defensive rebound is strong, which differs from his weaker floor presence in previous years.

In a comeback effort against the Pelicans, Bouknight excelled, piecing together a 28-point and seven-rebound performance. He showcased his exceptional shot-making, which was most notable from behind the arc, coming from mainly contested shots. He also found ways to create in the paint, scoring around the rim, another skill set from his college days.

What Bouknight needs most is a veteran mentor. If someone is able to truly take him under their wing and keep him in check, the 22-year-old will flourish. Although the production has been rather lackluster, the potential paired with the flashes of his skillset are simply too strong to give up on him yet.

Kai Jones

Jones is an extremely tough player to put a label on.

Similar to Bouknight, Kai has struggled to see the floor in his two years in Charlotte, and has also spent a large amount of time in Greensboro. Jones, a Bahama native, didn’t start playing basketball till later in life. He’s extremely gifted athletically, with both a high- and long-jumping background. Fans knew he was unpolished coming out of college, but the expectation was that in 1-to-2 years of G League development and practice, Jones would figure it out.

Entering year three, Jones still struggles with the same things as day one, mainly with his IQ on both offense and defense. Kai often seems to drop a pass, or get back-cut, but then will turn around and glass a layup and take it in transition for a slam.

This is where the struggle with Jones lies: You can’t give up on him, but you are running out of time to develop him.

What keeps Kai afloat is his motor. Regardless of how the last play went, the effort never seems to take a shot. When a big play is made, his energy takes it to another level, which seemingly boosts the energy of both the other Hornets on the floor and the bench alike. This is something coaching has certainly noticed, as Jones took a big jump in minutes from year one to year two.

Vegas for Kai this year left more of the same taste in the mouth of many. He opened with a zero field-goal outing but then dunked on No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama just a few nights later.


Thankfully, Kai has steered away from attempting to become a three-point shooter and seems honed in on his paint presence and defensive contributions. Kai’s handle still seems to be weak, and he looks lost on defense from time to time, but his improved touch around the rim and overall enhanced ball IQ are enough of an improvement to keep optimism.

Hive Hopefuls

Although Charlotte left Vegas without a title, the individual flashes from both new and returning players was enough to have optimism leading into October.

While rookies Miller and Smith may make immediate contributions, Nnaji and Bailey will have to wait their turn. As for Bouknight and Jones, the leash is short, but hopefully a third year in Summer League gave them the much-needed wake-up call. The significance of Summer League production for each of these players will have to wait to be shown until October, but for now, Charlotte should feel good about what is to come.

About Patrick Simon

Twitter @pcsimon23

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