Malik Monk: rekindling his confidence and maturing before our very eyes

December 17, 2016. T-Mobile Arena, Las Vegas, Nevada – The 2016 CBS Sports Classic. No.7 UNC leads no.6 Kentucky 100-98 with under 30 seconds remaining.  

De’Aaron Fox grabs a rebound, dashes up the floor, and dishes the ball to the left wing to Malik Monk. Monk catches the ball with 19.9 seconds remaining. He pump fakes, resets, and launches the ball from beyond the arc over Isaiah Hicks. 

HE HIT ANOTHER ONE! COLD BLOODED. DAGGER!”

Malik Monk buries the go-ahead, eventual game-winning three-pointer, propelling Kentucky over UNC in the most thrilling game – to date – of the 2016-17 NCAA season. 

“When I hesitated I heard coach Cal say drive, but I was hot so I shot my shot,” Monk said after his historic performance. “I knew I was going to make it.” Hot he was. Monk’s dagger capped off a Kentucky freshman single-game scoring record with 47 points. Monk knocked down 8-12 threes en route to one of the season’s most electrifying performances. 

Monk garnered the praise of several NBA stars following his exhilarating performance, including Draymond Green who Tweeted out his admiration of the freshman guard. 

Spectrum Center, Charlotte, NC – November 15, 2019: Pistons-Hornets

Detroit has the ball with 23 seconds remaining, tied at 106. Derrick Rose forces a drive down the left side of the lane, jumps mid-air – still with the ball – not having made a decision, flinging the ball to the right side of the floor nowhere near a teammate, turning the ball over. 

Hornets call a timeout. Officials review to determine how much time is remaining. You can feel the tension in the arena. The Hornets are in the midst of potentially facing their third late-game meltdown in their last four games. Friday’s game was an up-and-down battle all night with several lead changes down the stretch. 

“There is one second remaining on the game clock,” Patrick Doughty announces over the crowd in Uptown Charlotte. 

Rookie, Cody Martin inbounds the ball as the 7-footer Thon Maker towers over him. Cody slaps the ball. Across the court, Terry Rozier jabs, and spins dashing down the right side of the lane, getting a pick from Malik Monk for a potential lob attempt, drawing the attention of Bruce Brown and Derrick Rose – Monk’s initial defender. Devonte’ Graham flashes across, drawing his man into the left corner. 

Zeller sets a down screen for Monk at the top of the key. Monk bolts from the right elbow and has an opening as Martin passes him the ball. Monk catches the ball 26-feet away from the basket, knowing he has to shoot given there is only 1.0 second left. He rises up, fading back and to his left – one of the most difficult shots in basketball, especially from 26-feet out – shooting the ball over the 6’11” Andre Drummond, who heavily contests the 6’3” Monk’s shot. 

The ball is floating in the air for what feels like 10 seconds. Malik gazes at his three-point attempt, backpedaling towards halfcourt as the buzzer sounds. The ball perfectly kisses through the net as the entire Spectrum Center erupts into a thunderous roar. Malik Monk is mobbed by his entire Hornets team as he lifted his team to a 119-116 victory. 

After Grizzlies’ rookie sensation Ja Morant devastated the Hornets Wednesday night by sinking a game-winning buzzer-beater, Malik Monk took the reigns and decided it was his turn to deliver the goods and make a big-time play. 

What three years can do

It has been almost three years since Malik Monk’s last game-winner. Much has changed in that time.  Monk was highly regarded coming out of Kentucky as one of the nation’s best scorers, coming into the league with the impression that his game would translate quite smoothly in the modern NBA.

The Hornets drafted Monk with the 11th overall in the 2017 NBA draft. Monk was selected with the hope that he would come in and establish himself as the side kick next to Kemba Walker in the Hornets’ backcourt to help bolster a mediocre team. 

Malik has not come close to surpassing the expectations he came into the NBA bearing. So far his first two seasons have been packed full of inconsistencies. He would have a scoring outbreak every 10 or so games to keep fans hopeful. The games in between were filled with porous turnover-ridden games. Monk failed to eclipse 40 percent shooting from the field in either season. Most thought he was a bust and were extremely frustrated with his output to begin his career.

Malik’s make-or-break season

Many saw the 2019-20 NBA season as Malik’s make or break year. With Kemba Walker out of the picture and a dire need for ball handling, scoring, and playmaking, Monk would get his chance to show his true colors. 

With Kemba being such a ball-dominant, high-usage guard, the pieces around him – specifically Monk – had to mold into players they weren’t. Monk worked off the ball, primarily as a spot-up shooter, where he sparingly got the opportunity to handle the ball. When the opportunity arose when he had the ball in his hand’s, he would force tough shots (reflected by his sub 40 shooting percentage through two years) or cough up the rock. Ultimately, Monk’s time on the floor typically got cut short due to offensive shortcomings and lapses defensively.

“Things haven’t worked extremely in his favor the last couple of years,” James Borrego said following Monk’s game-winner Friday night. “He’s owned that and he’s moving forward.”

Monk came into media day on September 30, 23 pounds heavier – his slim frame was another knock on his game – along with a fresh mindset heading into the most crucial season of his career. He was ready to leave his first two seasons behind him, learn, and showcase his talent in a new role.

“I’ve been preparing myself, my whole career for this right here, this big ol’ opportunity,” Monk said on media day. “The last two years, I’ve been preparing myself for this opportunity. I’ve been waiting patiently. It’s annoying, but I’ve been waiting, and that’s what you’ve got to do sometimes is wait on your opportunity. But like I said, I’m ready this year.”

Monk has gotten his opportunity and he has run with it. Being a shell of what he was at Kentucky during his first two seasons with the Hornets, Malik was primed for a breakout year. 

More comfort and room to grow

As apreviously mentioned, Malik Monk has had trouble staying on the floor for extended runs. James Borrego mentioned on media day that Monk’s playing time would be a byproduct of how he defended, took care of the ball, and his shot selection – all prior ailments in his game. 

Having the constant thought in the back of his head that he could be yanked off the floor after one mistake, you could imagine that Monk would be much more guarded, shading away his true untapped potential that brought him to such heights at Kentucky, leading to him being a lottery pick. 

“Knowing you can make mistakes and be yourself out there will give you way more comfort,” Monk told The Painted Lines prior to Friday’s game against the Pistons. “I got a bigger chance now… Mistakes are going to happen, no one’s perfect. I just got to go out there and play my game.” This year Monk’s had the chance to get extended runs with more wiggle room for mistakes – due to his elevated role. Struggles are imperative for growth. 

On October 25th, the Hornets exercised Malik Monk’s fourth-year, $5.35 million option. The move by the organization additionally contributed to his increased confidence. “It shows they care for me and want me here another year at least,” Monk told The Painted Lines. “I just got to show what I can do.”

Monk’s rapid maturity

Leading up to Friday, Monk had already begun to make an apparent leap. His increased time on the floor reflected that. He was making wise decisions as a ball-handler and playmaker in the pick-and-roll – as opposed to his first two seasons. 

“There’s real growth there. He’s one of our better decision-makers right now with the ball in the pick-and-roll, coming off pin-downs, and in transition,” James Borrego said Wednesday, following Monk’s 20 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assist outing against Memphis. “He’s making great plays for us right now.”

As previously mentioned, Malik would get pulled from the game as a result of his defensive lapses, poor shot selection, and costly turnovers. Arguably, in the past, he did more things for Borrego to take him out of the game than for Borrego to keep him on the floor. “I see work, I see progress there (defensively), which is positive and I see progress on the offensive end as well,” Borrego explained earlier this week. 

Those issues have not vanished entirely but they’ve displayed drastic improvement. Malik has received a higher volume of in-game reps and experience as a ball-handler. As a result, he has developed as a guard while seeing an increase in his confidence.

Monk has rarely closed out games or stayed on the floor during crucial moments for the Hornets in his career. This week, he stayed on the floor to close out several games while drawing fouls, making timely buckets, and avoided turnovers while not being a liability defensively. “Taking responsibility and making the right plays will keep me out there to end games and be in situations like that,” Monk told The Painted Lines Friday. “I just have to keep making the right reads.”

Borrego has continued to commend Monk for his progression as a playmaker. There’s a glowing difference in the way he now runs the pick-and-roll, the fast break, and transition. He keeps his head up when attacking the rim, to avoid a standout when option A is not there. He keeps his dribble alive giving him the option to make the extra pass. His overall comfort and decisiveness as a playmaker is truly an outstanding development.  

“The game is slowing down for him. He’s making more decisive decisions out there with the ball,” Borrego said. “9 out of 10 times he’s making the right play out there. Malik is really making progress in the right way…He’s one of our best decision-makers this year. We are seeing signs of real maturity and real growth.”

Rekindling lost confidence

After Monk sunk the game-winner Friday night, some astounding details from the events leading up to the final shot were revealed by his teammates, specifically Devonte’ Graham.

“I was a decoy,” Graham said when asked if he was one of the primary options on the last play. “He (Malik) asked coach (Borrego) to draw a play up for him. He had all of that confidence in himself. I felt like it was going to go in. As soon as he asked for it, he was ready for that moment and we drew up a play for him.”

Until recently, Malik’s career has been one full of peaks and valleys. Even to start this season, he’s experienced his ups-and-downs, scoring less than 4 points in four of the 12 games this year. He seems to have finally found his niche within the team, being aggressive to find smart shots and create for his teammates.  

“Every game is getting better and better, too,” Monk said. “Hopefully, I keep growing from here. I’ve been working hard these last two, three years. I’ve been waiting for my moment.”

Hornets’ rookie Cody Martin held the unique responsibility of inbounding the ball on the final play and got the assist for the game-winner. He was proud of his teammate for pulling off the impossible. “I was pumped for Malik. It was a big shot,” Martin said. “I think I got the best angle from it. It was cold-blooded.”

Malik’s confidence has seemed to return to the same height it was almost three years ago while he was a freshman at Kentucky. He has grown before our eyes this year. Borrego saw the confidence Monk had in himself prior to Friday. 

“Even before that shot, the way he’s (Monk) been playing, that shot will only add to his confidence moving forward,” Borrego said. “The way he’s been playing, his poise, attacking of the rim, making plays for his teammates, the ability to shoot the ball. He’s been playing at a high level.”

Borrego’s confidence in Monk has been something many have questioned in the past. Postgame the Hornets head coach was asked if the final play was drawn up for Malik. Borrego smiled, saying “Who shot the ball? You can ask Malik Monk. That play was for Malik Monk.”

“I wanted the shot. I was confident.”