The Charlotte Hornets did not enter this season bearing lofty expectations. The team was projected to be the worst team in the NBA in 2019. Caesar’s projected the Hornets over/under win total at 24 games, tied with the Cavaliers for the lowest mark. Other sports betting companies set the Hornets win total lower than 24 – sitting at the lowest spot by their lonesome. 

Their early season schedule did not do them any favors either. After a two-game home stretch against Chicago and Minnesota, they headed west. The four-game California stretch began with the Lakers and Clippers back-to-back, then Sacramento, and concluding their trip in the Bay Area.

ESPN’s Front Office Insider Bobby Marks tweeted that there was a realistic chance the Hornets could start 0-10 if they dropped their first two games. Looking at the schedule on paper, one could come to a similar conclusion. After the four-game west coast trip the Hornets face the Pacers, Celtics, Sixers, and Pelicans. The NBA did not take it easy on the new-look Hornets.

Unexpected start for the Hornets

No one could have told you the Hornets would be 3-3 through six games to start the year. They have certainly surpassed expectations thus far. It has not been pretty throughout the team’s first two weeks, but they have gotten it done thanks to collective efforts from several players. 

Yes, it is only a six game stretch. Small sample size. But this team came into the year as one of the jokes of the NBA season. Without Kemba, most thought the Hornets had no hope. They have proven people wrong and displayed an aesthetically pleasing brand of basketball. They play fast, the team is shooting the three-ball at a high, accurate rate, and they defend at a high level. These are all things Borrego has instilled in this team, and they have displayed them thus far. 

There has not been a single guy that has carried this Hornets team thus far. That does not surprise anyone. James Borrego has talked about this team not having the guy. This team will need the concerted efforts of every rotation player for this team to succeed. That is what this young team has demonstrated to this point.

We have seen some consistent trends through six games. The Hornets ended their second-half struggles in Sacramento. Terry Rozier’s impact is indisputable when he is not in foul trouble – as we saw in the first few games. A healthy Cody Zeller is the steady hand this young team needs. P.J. Washington has blown the roof off of his expectations, advertising a well-rounded offensive repertoire. Malik Monk also found some life offensively in the team’s last three games.

As the team concluded their west-coast trip in Oakland against the Warriors Saturday, they left California splitting their four-game trip at 2-2. The aforementioned trends continued into California, but there were also some other storylines that deserve attention.

The Hornets ended their second-half plague in Sacramento

The Hornets struggled mightily in the second-half during their three-game losing streak. With leads in the first half against the Timberwolves, Clippers, and Lakers, the team lost offensive rhythm and crumbled down the stretch. That was not the case in Sacramento when the Hornets faced the Kings on Wednesday night. Riding a three-game losing streak, a collective team effort resulted in the Hornets pulling out an impressive victory at the Golden 1 Center. 

The final stat-lines illustrate the collective effort that led to the Hornets’ 118-11 victory:

  • Terry Rozier: 22 PTS (7-15 FG / 3-6 3PT), 5 REB, 6 AST, 3 STL, 2 BLK.
  • P.J. Washington: 23 PTS (10-13 FG / 2-3 3PT), 8 REB, 3 AST. 
  • Malik Monk: 18 PTS on 7-12 shooting (4-7 3PT), and 4 REB.
  • Miles Bridges: 17 PTS (7-11 FG / 3-5 3PT), 4 REB, 2 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL.
  • Devonte’ Graham: 12 PTS (4-7 FG / 2-5 3PT), 5 REB, 9 AST.
  • Cody Zeller: 12 PTS (6-14 FG), 15 REB (5 offensive rebounds), 5 AST.

The team also had some impressive stats as a whole. The Hornets shot 16-32 from three, racking up 30 assists on 46 field goals (21 turnovers). They also benefited from 15 Sacramento turnovers, scoring 29 points off the Kings’ mishaps. 

The two main takeaways from this game are definitely P.J. Washington and Terry Rozier. They both had impressive outings last Wednesday, but this game was a smaller picture to bigger stories. 

Terry Rozier is the team’s driving force when out of foul trouble 

Throughout the Hornets’ first several games to start the season, Terry Rozier has found himself in foul trouble early in games. Terry Rozier is the team’s best player, and when he can not be on the court for extended minutes, it really hurts the team’s chances. This issue was a contributing factor to the Hornets’ three game losing streak. 

Against the Timberwolves, Terry picked up three fouls in the first quarter. He picked up two in the first quarter against the Lakers, quickly getting his third in the second quarter. Rozier again had three fouls before halftime when they played the Clippers on Monday. Borrego has stated that the team needs Rozier out on the floor and is a crucial component to maintaining the team’s high pace. 

Rozier stayed out of foul trouble Wednesday and put on a show in the second half, making sure the Hornets didn’t let another first-half lead slip away. He scored 10 of his 22 points in the third. This was arguably his best game as a Hornet. He controlled the pace, creating offense when it became stagnant, as it does often in the half court. He played under control, taking smart, high-percentage shots that kept his team in rhythm. 

Terry also makes plays most guards don’t even care to attempt. For example, in the first quarter he missed a free throw, got his own rebound over a taller defender, and made the shot. That is a shining example of what Borrego says when he wants his team to “compete” every night. Hustle plays like that. When your best player is flying around, sacrificing his body for the team, it becomes contagious.

Terry continued his impressive play into Golden State where he scored 20 points. He also added 7 assists and 5 rebounds. The best ability is availability, and when Terry is out of foul trouble, he puts up 20-5-5 and this team plays near their best.  

P.J. Washington’s well-rounded offensive game

P.J. Washington started off his NBA career with a dream-like debut. He scored 27 points on 7-11 from three. He has continued that shooting success through six games. Washington is the team’s second leading scorer, averaging 15 PPG. He is shooting 55.7 percent from the field, including a scorching 50 percent from beyond the arc. 

Teams have adjusted and read the scouting report on Washington, closing out harder on his threes, not giving him as much breathing room off the ball. P.J. did not enter the NBA as a three-point specialist. In college, his bread and butter was his mid-range and post game. We won’t be seeing that mid-range game too often, but as for the post game, it has been impressive. 

Against the Kings, Washington had a mismatch, being defended by Nemanja Bejelica. He used his long, athletic body and primitive footwork to spin around the slower, less athletic Bejelica, knocking down right-handed hook after right-handed hook. His touch is uncanny, and he even got the praise from ESPN’s Zach Lowe on this part of his game. He briskly got position on Kings defenders, hopped, gathered, and flicked the ball over the defense. The most impressive P.J. play was when a taller Richaun Holmes (6’10”) was defending him in the post. P.J. uses his body to wall off Holmes to catch a high lob pass. Washington sealed him off, caught the ball, and finished it for a two-hand slam. Just another example of his versatility. 

As a roller in the pick-and-roll, Washington’s instincts are impressive for a rookie. James Borrego has said that Washington plays like he has been in the league for “two or three years.” His game shows it and is mature already. He rolls hard to the rim and has finished numerous dunks as a result of a successful pick-and-roll. 

Today’s NBA is three-pointers, layups, and free throws. P.J.’s game is the blueprint of the modern NBA forward. 54 of Washington’s 61 field goal attempts are either three-pointers, in the restricted area (0-3 feet), or in the paint (non-RA). 26/34 made field goals are either in the restricted area or three-pointers. Literally threes, layups, and dunks. That’s efficiency for you, and the Kentucky product is doing just that.

Malik Monk found a groove 

Inconsistency. The word to describe Malik Monk’s first two seasons in the NBA. He shows flashes of a guy that could potentially be an every night contributor to an NBA team. He has struggled to put together game-to-game evidence of the flashes we have seen. His playing time is inconsistent as his game offensively and defensively has been as well. Monk has yet to shoot over 40 percent from the field for a season. 

Monk started the regular season off on the wrong foot. He scored 7 points against the Bulls opening night but failed to score in the next two games, posting a box score plus/minus of -31 and -22 against the Timberwolves and Lakers. Starting the season scoring 7 points on 3-11 shooting is not the ideal start. 

Malik Monk bounced back, however, and had a solid three-game stretch to end the California road trip. Through that stretch, he averaged 14 points per game on 58 percent shooting. He posted 15 points on 7-12 shooting against the Clippers, 18 points on 7-12 shooting against Sacramento, and 9 points on 4-7 shooting against Golden State. 

His Clippers performance was special on the defensive end of the floor. The thing with Monk is when he is rolling offensively, it directly transfers to his defense. He is more alert, aggressive, and engaged, and it showed last Monday. He drew three offensive fouls on charges that energized the entire team. Monk blocked Lou Williams’ layup attempt with 0.1 seconds left on the shot clock in the second quarter. 

During this stretch, Malik was fluently running the pick-and-roll as the ball handler, assisting on several baskets and dunks. He looks more poised with the ball in his hands than he did in the past. Previously, Monk would be frantic, make an ill-advised pass that would soar into the bleachers, or just commit unforced turnovers. He has gotten more ball handling opportunities and understands this year is the time where he will show his true colors. The team gave him the fourth year option; now he just needs to go out and play. 

Shooting the ball, Monk has improved his shot selection – not forcing low-percentage shots that throw the offense out of sync. He thrives in driving to the basket, using that right-handed runner to kiss it off the glass over taller defenders. His speed is used to his advantage to blow by defenders. In the last three games, Borrego has even called ATO plays designed for Monk to get a look. Borrego wants Malik to succeed and hopes to gain full trust in his game.

Dwayne Bacon breaks out of offensive slump in Golden State

James Borrego said on media day that Dwayne Bacon could potentially be one of the team’s two leading scorers this season. You can see the potential, but Bacon had not put it together through the team’s first five games where he mightily struggled. Through the Hornets’ first handful of games, Dwayne shot 32.7 percent (20-61) from the field, including 20 percent (5-20) from beyond the arc. 

Bacon was sizzling in the Bay Area on Saturday as he broke out of his cold shooting spell. He posted a career high 25 PTS, 6 REB, 2 AST, and 2 STL. He did so on 10-21 shooting. This was a much needed game for Dwayne as the team will need his scoring as they hit another tough stretch of games this week. They face Indiana, Boston, New Orleans, and Philadelphia in the next week. 

Bacon says he can “get down hill at will” and says that is his best attribute on offense. In the Hornets’ first five games, Bacon would force drives to the rim where he would throw his body against others and heave up tough layups. Often times this would throw the offense out of sync and lead to a transition opportunity for the other team. 

The Hornets struggled from three Saturday, making one of their first 15 shots from beyond the arc. Their first 20 points came in the paint, and a lot of that was due to Dwayne Bacon. On a night where the Hornets struggled from deep, having a guy in Dwayne who can get to the rack at will is a valuable asset.

Saturday night, Dwayne let the offense come to him – for the most part – and would drive to the rim when he saw open lanes for a layup. He used his strength to finish through contact on a few and-one opportunities. When used correctly at the right time, Bacon’s slashing ability and skill to boulder past smaller guards is a tantalizing skill this team needs. His spin move on Alec Burkes was beautiful, along with a few more of his reverse layups and overpowering moves on the smaller Warrior guards.

Dwayne Bacon is in a new increased role. He has been given an elevated responsibility – so growing pains are inevitable. He has struggled through much of the start of the season, but Saturday night was a good confidence booster for the three-year guard as they head into another tough stretch. Charlotte will face several aggressive, top-tier defenses, so Bacon will need to be on his A-game for this Hornets team to pull out as many wins as possible.