Checking in on the Hornets’ rookies

The Hornets have embarked on a new era. A new chapter focused primarily on player development. The Hornets drafted three rookies in this past June’s NBA Draft: P.J. Washington, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, and signed Caleb Martin as an undrafted free agent. 

The Hornets’ organization has been pleased with their rookies thus far. Cody and P.J. have been with the Hornets the entire season (besides Cody going down to Greensboro for practice this past Sunday before being recalled by the Hornets immediately following). Caleb and Jalen McDaniels have spent the start of the 2019 NBA season with the Greensboro Swarm in the G-League.

The G-League does not get the necessary attention it deserves. Hornets fans need to be informed on how their guys are doing down in the G. James Borrego has liked what he has seen, more specifically heard, about Jalen McDaniels and Caleb Martin from two-way player development coach Nick Friedman and Swarm head coach Joe Wolf so far. 

“They’re doing great. I wish I was around them more,” James Borrego said Saturday with a smile. “Everything I hear from coach [Joe] Wolf and Nick Friedman is really positive. Very coachable young kids, getting better, understanding our system at a higher level. I love their spirit. Great spirit, great motors, very coachable. Those qualities are going to allow them to be successful in this league. I think they’re keepers for us, absolutely.”

We are now over a month into the NBA season; let’s answer some questions regarding each of this team’s rookies.

Caleb Martin is fully embracing his role

Caleb Martin is fully embracing his role. He is on the Hornets’ 15-man roster for a reason. He earned it. Martin understands his time with the Swarm will play a large part of his development during his rookie season. His mindset and approach could not be better. 

Caleb has been a stat sheet stuffer – as Clark Kellogg loves to say – so far in Greensboro. Through four games in the G-League, Caleb is averaging 18.3 PTS, 5.3 REB, 4.3 AST, 2.3 STL, 1.5 BLK. Martin’s been impacting the games in every way possible – one thing you are thrilled to see with a rookie. 

He is handling the ball and distributing like a point guard. Caleb defends at the highest level, pinning opponents’ layups on the glass like it’s clockwork and poking the ball free with ease, leading to easy fast-break buckets. Last Friday against the Windy City Bulls, he recorded five steals and blocked three shots. His energy and motor are contagious and something that will bring immediate value whenever he’s called upon to return to the Hornets.

The Hornets know he can score. That’s why he was so highly coveted coming out of Nevada – where he averaged over 19 points per game as a senior for the Wolfpack. One consistent sentiment he has been hearing from up top is to improve upon the little things in his game. The parts of the game that don’t show up in the stat sheet. Running to corners, setting screens, and finding ways to get easier shots for himself and his teammates. He’s been working on impacting the game when the ball is not in his hands.

“That’s one thing I’ve been hearing from upstairs, from coach [James] Borrego and coach [Joe] Wolf. Learning how to impact the game when the ball’s not in my hands,” Caleb Martin said following last Friday’s game against the Windy City Bulls. “Obviously I’m down here to work and figure out different ways to impact the game. I feel like I have the tools to do it. Just coming in and having a different mentality.”

From the multiple conversations I’ve had with Caleb, his mentality and determination to do whatever is asked of him from Borrego and Nick Friedman are phenomenal. He is a rookie that does not mind grinding down in the G-League. He knows that he is sowing the seeds in his game that will blossom in due time. His play-style fits in this league. Caleb fits the culture and game the Hornets are pursuing and is fully aware he belongs in the NBA. It’s all about putting in that work and improving upon the little things that will directly translate to the next level. 

Borrego and Wolf have both continuously echoed how coachable he is and how positive his spirit is. Caleb Martin has the perfect balance of being humble yet confident in his game. 

“I know I can score but actually wanting to and willingly do things off the ball. I’m capable of doing that, and I enjoy doing it,” Martin said. “I’m capable of getting 5 steals or several blocks in a game. It’s fun down here where you can just go for it.”

The word willingly stands out. That is just another testament to his mindset. Yes, he scored in bunches in the preseason, but the fact that he enjoys doing the little things that not many players enjoy is great to hear from a rookie.

Caleb made the 15-man roster for a reason, and we can see why. He can impact the game as a scorer, distributor, posterize a defender – something he’s gotten so close to multiple times this year – and overall on the defensive end where is an absolute menace. Caleb Martin is special and is in the Hornets’ long-term plans.

Jalen McDaniels’ feel for the game

Jalen McDaniels is a project. The Hornets drafted him with a full understanding that he would need time in the G-League to further develop his game. He is raw, but the talent is there. Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego have both stated that McDaniels will be with the Swarm for the majority of the year. Jalen will be brought up to the Hornets from time-to-time when it does not interfere with the Swarm’s games. For example, he was recalled last Saturday when the Hornets faced the Chicago Bulls. He got called back up to get practice reps in with NBA-level talent.

He has the potential to be a versatile combo forward and fits perfectly into the style of play James Borrego is implementing into this team. Both Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels have been recalled by the Hornets twice in the past week, most likely to just get more practice time with the team.

Thus far through six G-League games, McDaniels is averaging 17.8 PTS on 43.9 percent shooting from the field, including 44.4 percent from three and 94.4 percent from the free-throw line. He’s adding 9.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 2.3 STL, and 1.3 BLK. 

One aspect of Jalen’s game that he has concentrated on improving is his three-point shot. He shot just 30.1 percent on catch-and-shoot threes at San Diego State. That number is skyrocketing this season. From the get-go, he has been confident from beyond the arc, letting the ball fly without any hesitation, which is nice to see. His free-throw percentage – small sample size alert – adds more optimism to the matter. In college, he tended to frequently settle for mid-range jumpers if he could not get past his defenders, and that will not fly in Borrego’s system or the modern NBA. He has not reverted to mid-range jumpers and is getting the majority of his field-goal attempts at the rim or from three. 

As for McDaniels’ feel for the game, it has a ways to go, but his instincts on both sides of the floor are intriguing. On offense, he gives the appearance of a guard at times as he dribbles the ball low to the ground. He flashes accurate cross-court passes from the post or on drive-and-kicks to shooters and cutters. Jalen attacks the rim with purpose, getting there by utilizing his speed – that’s impressive for a 6-foot-10 forward – along with an influx of crossovers and hesitations he uses on the perimeter and via transition.

Jalen has a knack for getting offensive rebounds and has that attuned instinct to know where the ball is going off of misses. Overall on offense, he impacts the game mainly by driving in transition – getting to the rack or dishing to teammates, spotting up for threes, and getting put-backs from offensive rebounds. 

Jalen McDaniels has great defensive instincts. In Friday’s game against the Windy City Bulls, he grabbed 10 rebounds in the game’s first 10 minutes. His long arms, explosiveness, and aggression lead him to get to the right spot to grab boards to get the team out in transition. He is an aggressive on-ball defender who is capable of defending all five positions. His length allows him to block passing lanes and poke the ball free from defenders. He also is a great help-side defender, contesting and blocking opponents’ shots. 

His 6-foot-10 frame needs a bit of bulking up due to him weighing only 205 pounds. That’s another area he’s concentrated on as well and will only help in the long run. He’ll be able to hold his position more on defense, box out defenders better, not get pushed out of the way on opponents’ drives to the rim, and just be more of a physical presence on both ends. He has the speed and athleticism already, he just needs to add some pounds. 

McDaniels has the size and skill set to fit like a glove in today’s league. He has some growth to attend to, but that is all a part of the journey and process. He has already impressed and progressed early on in his rookie season. Anticipate him to keep building on this with the hopes he can be on the Hornets roster full-time next season. 

Is Cody Martin bound for Greensboro? 

Nicolas Batum is back from injury, and Malik Monk is taking a bulk of the guard minutes off the bench. It is just a matter of time before we see Cody Martin assigned to the Swarm for several games. Borrego’s magic number for development is 30 minutes. He wants his guys to be getting consistent playing time whether that is with the Swarm or with the Hornets. 

Recently, Cody’s playing time is not consistent. He has stretches where he will play 15 minutes per night, but that’s only on a case-by-case scenario. For example, against the Pacers and against the Pistons a few weeks back (Monk’s game-winner), Cody played north of 20 minutes and played well. He helped the Hornets close both of those games. His energy and defensive presence is contagious and elevates the energy of his teammates.

What’s difficult with a guy like Cody is that he has a unique role on the team. He is their energy guy off the bench that can help turn the tide of a game in a matter of minutes. Against Golden State earlier this year, he played just 4 minutes, but those 4 minutes turned the game for the Hornets, resulting in a win. You’d imagine Borrego would want to have a guy like that in his back pocket to help win games for his team.

Borrego has been unhappy with his team’s play and has made it very obvious this week. His biggest issue with the team currently is their play on the defensive end. More specifically, his team’s lack of engagement and effort. He has stated that he is not afraid to “shake up the rotation,” adding that there are no “God-given minutes” for any player on the roster – one sentiment he has continually expressed this season. Cody Martin’s niche with this team is his defensive play, and Cody may carve out some extra minutes heading into tonight’s game against the Pistons.

If you think big picture, the Hornets are focused on player development more so than winning. They want to win as many games as they can but don’t want winning getting in the way of development, the long-term goal for this organization. So all things considered, yes, Cody brings value to the team in a way no other Hornet can, but Borrego wants his guys to grow and get consistent playing time. Cody is not getting consistent playing time at the moment. Expect him to play for the Swarm for chunks of the season where he can help improve his offensive game which has been a glaring weakness in his game, his perimeter shooting in particular.

P.J. Washington’s adjustment after a hot start

Yes, P.J. Washington has experienced a rough patch these past several games. He averaged 13 points per game through the team’s first 13 games. He was shooting 52 percent from the field on 9.23 field goal attempts per game. Over the past five games, that scoring average has dropped to 5.6 points per game. During that stretch he is shooting 36.6 percent on 6.6 field goal attempts per game. 

Despite struggling the past several games, P.J. still has a 46.6 three-point shooting percentage this season. This ranks first amongst rookies. That’s rookies that average at least 2.5 three-point attempts per game (on pace for over 200 attempts on the season – a reasonable sample size). He is now in a phase of figuring out ways to score without a high volume of three-point looks.

As a rookie, there is a big adjustment period. For P.J., he was not a three-point shooter at Kentucky, so he is in the process of figuring out how to move better without the ball to get more looks from beyond the arc. It’s an art, as we’ve seen with J.J. Redick, Klay Thompson, and more of the game’s best movers without the ball. Furthermore, he has started to revert back to his bread and butter from college and high school: his back to the basket post-up game. He plays bigger than his 6-foot-7, 236-pound frame suggests. He can back down bigger defenders and uses that right-handed jump hook to get some easy buckets.

After a scorching hot shooting start, teams have started to run Washington off the line. Despite a bit of a scoring drop, P.J. still impacts the game in different ways. He has had several games this season where he has recorded several blocks and steals in the same game. For example, he recorded 4 blocks against Boston and 4 steals against Philadelphia. That’s just a small sample of games he’s impacted without scoring.

P.J. Washington is also a tenacious rebounder and uses his broad frame to box out defenders and grab boards. He averages 5.2 rebounds in 27 minutes per game. He is just another guy that can secure the rock off an opponent’s miss to start the Hornets’ transition and lead their fast-pace style in which they thrive. On a smaller team, having an undersized power forward who can rebound, contest shots, and break up passing lanes is invaluable.

James Borrego said, “Special players in this league find ways to impact the game when their shot isn’t falling. P.J. is one of those guys.” Having the versatility within your game to impact it on multiple levels is what you see in players that will have lustrous NBA careers. 

Progression is not linear, and rookies like P.J. will go through the ebbs and flows of an NBA season. The adjustment is astronomical, but you just have to continue to improve your craft and refine your game. Washington has shown the ability to be the roller in the pick-and-roll along with a runner in transition. He’s finding his way, but it won’t come with eye-catching numbers in the box score. Eventually? Yes. But for now, he is just finding his way in the NBA, continuing to focus on little things to improve upon. James Borrego has stated that he is very coachable and wants to be great. Borrego has had one-on-one film sessions with Washington to help him find his grove. The rookie has already surpassed expectations.