What we learned Sunday and what to expect tonight against the Miami Heat

Kemba Walker departing for the Boston Celtics was the talk of the Charlotte Hornets’ offseason. Charlotte kicked off preseason by facing their former franchise player, while newly acquired Hornet Terry Rozier returned to his old team.

The Celtics triumphed, defeating the Hornets 107-106, and Kemba immediately walked over and embraced several of his former teammates including Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo, and Willy Hernangomez as the final buzzer sounded. 

The Kemba talk was exhausting, especially for Rozier who said the comparisons to Walker were “annoying because I’m not him, and I don’t look to be him and I’m not… And I get it. He is Kemba. He did a lot for this organization. Leading scorer, that’s hard to replace, and being me, I’m looking to push this organization in a different way.” Rozier was glad to get a game against Kemba out of the way so he could have a break at least until early November. 

The outcome of the game was far from the biggest storyline from Sunday, and there were many more besides Kemba and Terry facing their old teams. 

Ball movement

James Borrego emphasized throughout training camp last week that ball movement was one of the team’s biggest improvements and a huge priority for this season. “The ball is not sticking. It’s not in one guy’s hands. Moving the ball to multiple sides of the floor to multiple playmakers.”

Last night the Hornets did just that, assisting on 29 of their 40 makes (72.5 percent). Borrego emphasized getting “hockey assists” in camp last week, stating that, “It doesn’t show up on the box score, but it’s one of those things that helps teams win.” He emphasized that a lot of points will come off the drive – a guy kicking it out, passing to another for an open three. Last night that was put on display throughout the night, and the team shot 36.8 percent from deep (14-38), many of those coming off assists and swing passes. 

Terry Rozier focused on being a distributor Sunday – contrary to the popular belief that he is just a shot creator – racking up nine assists and zero turnovers. Borrego didn’t want Rozier to come out and “save the day” but wanted him to settle in and find his role and the preseason is a great opportunity for that. Rozier did just that, showing his ability to be a playmaker.

Cody Zeller will be a focal point in the offense

Early in Sunday’s game with the Hornets’ starters out on the floor, we saw a consistent pattern on offense. Cody Zeller started at the top of the key being the handoff man on DHO’s (dribble hand-offs), faking handoffs and driving to the rim (which he converted an and-one off of on a nifty crossover), passing to teammates off a fake DHO, or handing it off to set screens. 

James Borrego praised Zeller last week on his screen setting abilities, saying he was the team’s best screener as well as a huge proponent in the team’s high pace that he is looking to have this season. Borrego said the pace at which Zeller sets screens is the most important part – the timing and placement of the screen relative to where his teammates are and what they are trying to do. 

Cody Zeller has only played a combined 82 games over the last two seasons, but Borrego said his main focus is to keep Zeller healthy. A healthy Zeller is large part of what this team is trying to do. He excels as a playmaker, running the floor, and as a screener which are all big parts of what the Hornets coach wants out of his offense this year. 

Caleb Martin was the shining Martin twin

Caleb Martin shined in his Hornets preseason debut, scoring 13 points, grabbing 4 rebounds, and dishing out 2 assists. Caleb was the undrafted Martin twin – his brother Cody was the 36th pick in last year’s draft – but outplayed his brother in his Hornets debut. 

Caleb was supposed to play for the Hornets summer league team but sat out recovering from a foot injury. This was his first in-game action for Charlotte, and he did not disapoint. He prides himself on scoring and averaged 19.2 points per game as a senior at Nevada. 

Caleb and Cody played side-by-side Sunday, so it was a bit confusing seeing two identical twins running around the floor. However, Borrego strategically played them together to see how they performed on the floor at the same time. It didn’t take long for Caleb to show he can score the rock at the professional level, using a crossover to get his defender off-balanced to drain a three for his first NBA points. 

Caleb Martin finished shooting 5/11 from the field, including two made threes – he pulled up from three off the dribble in transition, but his foot was on the line. He showed he could score in a variety of ways, making threes off the dribble or the catch, using a pump fake to drive in to make a difficult contested layup, or by running the floor in transition for an easy layup.

Caleb is fighting for one of the Hornets’ two open roster spots that are left, but if he does not make the team, he will spend his rookie season lighting it up in Greensboro for the Swarm. 

P.J. Washington shined in his Hornets debut

Charlotte’s first round pick P.J. Washington was the highlight for the Hornets in their first preseason game. The Kentucky product finished with 16 points, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists in 20 minutes of action. 15 of Washington’s 16 points came during the second quarter as he shot 6-6 from the floor, including 3-3 from beyond the arc in just eight minutes. 

The thought coming into this season was P.J. would begin the year in the G-League due to the Hornets having a surplus at the power forward spot on their current roster. He didn’t play in summer league due to rehabilitating fully from foot surgery, so Sunday was the first time we saw him live in a Hornets uniform. The rookie may have us thinking twice about that if he continues to play as he did Sunday. 

During the second quarter, they ran Washington at center, and he played well for that particular run. He knocked down threes on back-to-back possessions, set a solid screen and rolled to the basket for an alley-oop slam, and took his defender off the dribble for a contested layup. 

Borrego had nothing but positive things to say about P.J.’s Hornets debut on Sunday. “I thought PJ was fantastic tonight,” Borrego said. “He’s a high-IQ basketball player. He looks like a real player out there… He’s been very confident, very assertive in camp, and he showed it tonight.”

What to look for tonight against the Miami Heat

The Hornets play their first home game of the preseason tonight at the Spectrum Center against the Miami Heat at 7:30 EST. Charlotte will look to bounce back after their loss to the Celtics as they take on a new Miami Heat team.

This summer the Heat acquired Jimmy Butler via a four-team sign-and-trade deal that sent Josh Richardson to Philadelphia, Hassan Whiteside to Portland, along with Miami receiving Meyers Leonard. The Heat are trying to form chemistry with their new core, so expect their starters to play extended minutes – especially in the first half. 

Hornets’ rookie P.J. Washington will face his Kentucky teammate and Miami Heat first round pick Tyler Herro tonight. Expect to see those two joking around and chatting it up before the game. 

James Borrego said that Dwayne Bacon has the potential to be the Hornets’ best perimeter defender this year. After the All-Star break last season, Bacon started frequently and was assigned to defend the opponent’s best scorer. Tonight, look for Dwayne to be the primary defender on Jimmy Butler. Borrego is preaching defense and has set a high standard and goals for what Bacon can do. The preseason is the perfect time to get some run in defending one of the league’s better scorers. 

James Borrego stated yesterday in practice that he was impressed with the team’s ball movement on Sunday, but is making ball security and cutting down on turnovers a priority for his team tonight. Borrego was impressed with his team’s ball movement in training camp and thought that translated well to Sunday’s game – swinging the ball around, not letting it stick – but needed to clean up on turnovers. The Hornets averaged 11.7 turnovers per game last season but coughed the ball up 26 times against Boston. Sunday’s turnover total is not going to be a common trend due to the fact that many of the Hornets’ players are seeing an increased role and responsibility on offense, so early growing pains as we saw Sunday are just a part of the process. 

Terry Rozier will have another opportunity to put his playmaking skills on display tonight. Rozier is still looking to find his role on this team, and Borrego said Terry is going to be making the “most decisions of his career” this season. He will use the preseason to learn about his new teammates and settle into his role as one of this team’s leaders and primary ball handler.

Malik Monk was a full participant in Tuesday’s practice and will make his preseason debut today after missing the majority of training camp and Sunday’s game recovering from a toe injury. Monk is expected to have a larger role this year. The third-year guard added 23 pounds this offseason and is looking to have a breakout year. Borrego wants Monk to focus on improving his defense and creating smart shots. With Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb gone, there is a need for shot creators on this team, and Malik Monk is equipped to help fill that hole.