The Hornets are at the start of a new era – a transition stage after the departure of Kemba Walker. They are now lead by a group of young up-and-coming players including recently acquired Terry Rozier along with the likes of Dwayne Bacon, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Malik Monk, and Devonte’ Graham. Tonight, the Charlotte Hornets officially begin their 2019-20 campaign at the Spectrum Center as they faceoff against the Chicago Bulls at 7 pm. 

Hornets head coach James Borrego and Hornets General Manager and President of Basketball Operations Mitch Kupchak are both in their second years in their perspective positions. The team was pushing for the playoffs last season while still retaining Kemba Walker but now they are settled in a transition period. They feel more comfortable and can now put into action their unified plan to build the Hornets organization up to a future of consistent success.

Michael Jordan, Mitch Kupchak, and James Borrego are all unified in their vision for this organization going forward. They will fully focus on player development, acquire draft assets and young talent, and build this team from the bottom up for long-term success. 

The Hornets current roster backs up those sentiments as the average years of experience on the team’s 15-man roster is 3.93 years. They are young, developing, and not bound for success this season. The organization has a long view and has seen how you build a successful team from the bottom up as we have seen with Philadelphia, Atlanta, Sacramento, and other organizations. 

The Hornets now start the season with a fresh start. They can build around their young core, establish their identity, and build a culture-bound for future success. 

Here are four things to watch for as the season kicks off tonight:

Adjustment period: Young Hornets in new roles

The Hornets are going to have to make up for the scoring and production lost with Kemba leaving along with Jeremy Lamb departing for the Indiana Pacers. The two combined to average 40.9 points per game last season. There is a considerable scoring rift that needs to be filled by a combination of the Hornets’ young players.

This season will be a big adjustment period, as the Hornets find the pieces to collectively produce offense. Charlotte does not have one player who can match up to the production of Kemba Walker so they will need a concerted effort from a mixture of guys. James Borrego said before the season that he expects Terry Rozier and Dwayne Bacon to lead the scoring charge. Names also mentioned to fill that role were Miles Bridges and Dwayne Bacon along with Devonte’ Graham needing to be aggressive leading the second group off the bench. 

The bottom line is, none of these Hornets players mentioned above have had a key long-term offensive role on an NBA team in their careers. So this season will feature lots of growing pains – cold stretches of minutes, quarters, games, and weeks are inevitable. These players are still forming chemistry with one another, as James Borrego said, “We are learning each other. This is a work in progress.” 

Turnovers and the inconsistency of ball movement were a common theme during the preseason but these guys are getting used to their new roles. Borrego understands that and is confident they can take up their new roles. “These guys are in new spots. They are handling the ball more than ever. All of them – Terry, Bake, Miles.”

Each young Hornet offers a unique skill set that if tapped into and meshed correctly with this team, eventually can result in success. Progression is not linear and player development is a process, so this will not be immediate. Throughout the season these guys will get better and better and become more comfortable with their role and their teammates. 

This season we will see Terry Rozier as the focal point of the Hornets team, pushing the high pace Borrego wants to play, being the primary facilitator, and likely main shot creator and scorer. Borrego has loved his playmaking abilities thus far, surpassing 8 assists in two of the four preseason games he played in. Rozier is finally in a key role on an NBA team for the first time in his career and he is thrilled for the opportunity. 

Devonte’ Graham has shown major improvements and increased confidence in his jump shot, averaging 12 points per game in the preseason, on 50 percent shooting from the field and 40 percent from three. Borrego has challenged the second-year guard to be aggressive offensively. Graham is now solidified as the backup point guard, after only playing less than 50 games his rookie season. He has shown that he can handle an elevated role. 

Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges are both in drastically different roles this season. Bacon played 17 games in the G-League and started only 13 games last season whereas Miles Bridges only started 25 games last season as a rookie. Both are going to start this year and Borrego expects the ball to be in their hands a substantial amount compared to last season. Instead of sitting in the corner and letting Kemba create and facilitate, they will be the ones with the ball in their hands. Field goal percentage and efficiency will drop but that’s all apart of elevating your role and usage. Every NBA player wants the chance to be a focal point of an offense and these two have the opportunity right in front of them. 

Will Malik Monk make the jump?

Malik Monk is entering his third year in the NBA and has yet to live up to the expectations he had when he was a lottery pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. He has received much scrutiny during his first two years surrounding his production and his thin frame, but he has taken strides to improve in that area. He has added 23 pounds to his frame and will look to have an elevated role in the Hornets rotation this season.

Malik Monk does not think he has gotten a fair shot to showcase his talents through his first two seasons. Malik does best with the ball in his hands and in his first two seasons he was on a team with a high usage guard in Kemba Walker (33.3 percent usage rate) so his strengths were minimized. Borrego also has stated that Monk needs to improve his defense to stay on the floor for extended stretches this season.

The third-year guard left a great last impression this preseason, scoring 18 points (6-10 shooting) and adding seven assists with zero turnovers. He looked more comfortable out there and garnered the praise of his head coach and general manager the past few weeks.

And it is not just the scoring that Malik has shown signs of progression on but his playmaking as well. Borrego wants multiple playmakers on the floor and has run lineups with Monk, Rozier, and Graham, and expects every guard he puts on the floor to have key, instinctive playmaking abilities and Borrego and Kupchak both cited that he looks better in that particular area of his game.

Borrego believes Monk has made strides in his game. “He’s grown. It looks to me like he has figured this thing out. Playing with his teammates, playing the right way.” One knock on Malik his first two years has been his questionable shot selection, having a 37.6 percent career field goal percentage. The Hornets coach also thought Monk was better in that area as well this preseason. “He (Monk) took what the defense gave him – played within himself and didn’t try to hit the home run on every single play.” 

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak believes a jump from Monk is imperative for this team’s progression going forward. “For us to be on track going forward with our young group, we need a jump from him (Malik). That would be great.” Monk is a key part of this team’s young core and if he becomes the player they drafted him to be then this entire team elevates as a result. Having a consistent lightning bolt scorer who can light it up from anywhere on the floor is valuable to any NBA team.  

A healthy Cody Zeller is a vital component to this team

Cody Zeller stated on media day that this was the healthiest he has been in years. When healthy, Zeller has been a key part of what the Hornets do on offense. Now with a new team, Zeller is likely the lone vet in the starting lineup and his experience will be crucial to the play of this team on both ends of the floor. 

James Borrego has talked about how Zeller is key for the Hornets’ pace, pushing the ball on offense, in their new fast style of play they will exhibit this season. Zeller runs the floor well as a big man, underrated size and rebounding ability and his vision and playmaking ability allow him to make precise passes up the floor to get the team into transition where they will look to put pressure on the defense and attack the rim this season. 

Zeller will be featured at the top of the key for many offensive possessions and the offense has run through him quite frequently. The Hornets center starts at the top of the arc and catches the ball to either hand it off in a DHO action or he even attacks off the dribble to create more offense. Zeller also has the basketball IQ and playmaking ability to make the correct, accurate pass as the Hornets run off-ball actions. 

Borrego has also encouraged the Indiana product to attempt more threes this season, having only attempted 25 over his last two seasons (82 games) combined. He attempted 2.2 per game this preseason and being able to draw opposing big men out of the paint will open up the offense entirely throughout the season and create easier scoring opportunities and space the floor for teammates. 

Having a stable, low-turnover big on the floor like Zeller is going to be important for this team this season as they all grow into new roles. Zeller explained in the preseason that it is a process with all these young guys because they don’t know where to go on the floor at times or where to fit in. Cody can be the guy to settle down the offense when things get frantic and are the rim protector on the other end. 

James Borrego’s number one priority on defense is protecting the rim and the majority of the responsibility in that is on Cody Zeller. Centers see the floor from the best point of view out of anyone on the floor, having a full vision of the offense when positioned near the basket. Rotations and communication defensively have been an aspect of defense the Hornets have tried to improve on and Zeller will be the man in the back directing that. 

The Hornets’ new identity

An essential part of building this new-look Hornets team for the long haul is establishing an identity. James Borrego laid out his “four pillars” that will define this team’s success this season and one of those pillars included identity – “Who we are on both ends of the floor.”

The Hornets coach has stated continuously that his offense is going to play at a high pace – push the ball, put pressure on the defense, and attack the rim. Borrego wants his team to play fast and that will be another big adjustment, especially for young players who are turnover bound. We saw turnovers become an issue during the preseason and that trend will likely continue as this team gets more comfortable playing at a high speed. To establish an offensive identity long-term you have to go through a trial stage where you face difficulties and make mistakes and the Hornets are in a position where they can be patient and just do that. 

Another aspect of the Hornets’ offensive identity is ball movement. Borrego does not want the ball sticking in one player’s hands but wants it whipped around at a high rate like we have seen with the Philadelphia 76ers and Golden State Warriors in the past. He mentioned guys getting “hockey assist” by making the extra pass that gives the next guy a higher percentage shot opportunity. Establishing a culture of unselfishness where everyone is bought in and trying to get the team the best shot possible, not themselves. 

Defensively, Borrego wants two things. He wants his team to protect the rim first and foremost, and second, defend with high energy and intensity. He wants to embody the defensive scheme that Mike Budenholzer and the Bucks have established where they protect the paint at all costs even if it results in open threes. The Bucks ranked first in defense in the NBA last year but were in the bottom tier in three point defense. Through the preseason we saw the Hornets surrender numerous open three-point opportunities but did well in defending the paint. The team, as Borrego has mentioned, needs to improve on communication on that end of the floor but that just comes with time and as chemistry improves.