As of today, the Charlotte Hornets have played 31 of the 82 games on the 2014-2015 schedule (that's nearly 40 percent for those who don't feel like doing the math), and so far, it would not be a stretch at all to call the Hornets a disappointment so far. The team came into this season with the highest expectations the franchise had in years, thanks to a playoff berth a season ago, a long awaited and needed rebranding, and the signing of Lance Stephenson. Now, Charlotte sits at 10-21 and the team has already had to deal with numerous trade rumors involving their star offseason signing.
But it has not been all bad news for the Hornets. While players like Stephenson have yet to meet expectations and Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker are just now playing closer to the level we expected all season, other players have surprised us and played much better than all but the extreme optimists had predicted.
For the list, I tried to find the players who did the best job of surprising myself and the fan base with their total play up through this point in the year. It would surprise no one in saying that Stephenson did not make my list, nor did Walker or Jefferson. They are playing well, but many expected that. I wanted to highlight players who have really impressed and surprised me.
So, without further ado, let's start this countdown with the honorable mentions.
There was a time earlier this season when you could argue that Gary Neal was the best shooter on the squad and their most clutch player. Remember Lance Stephenson's game winner an eternity ago against the Hawks? It looked like the play was actually drawn up for Neal to take the shot. Check out the far side of the court on the play.
Then, Bad Gary Neal showed up. In his last three games, he shot 4-for-27, including an 0-for-9 effort against the Milwaukee Bucks. Play that impressively awful does not earn on a spot on this list.
Not many were sure what to expect from Hairston coming into this season. Most were just hoping he would stay out of trouble off the court long enough to make an impact on the court. Hairston has shown flashes of the 3-point threat the team were hoping they acquired when they drafted him, and Clifford has multiple times praised Hairston's effort on defense. But recently, Hairston has done more jacking up shots than making shots. It has gotten so bad that Chris Barnewall created this completely accurate flow chart.
Anyway, onto he top three:
3. Bismack Biyombo
Biyombo has had some pretty high expectations attached to him ever since Charlotte drafted him in the first round. He was described as a project who would need years to develop. It seems like 2014 is the year where he is beginning his coming out party.
Sure, he still struggles on offense — anytime he holds the ball for longer than half a second on offense, he begins to think too much and you can see how much it affects his play. He is the antithesis of Al Jefferson. While Jefferson has all the moves on offense and almost none on defense, Biyombo has tons of defensive moves and...well, this one offensive move.
Biyombo remains a force on defense (who can forget his six block game against the Orlando Magic last month), which has always been where his true value lies. His 1.3 blocks per game is on par with another well-known defender by the name of Joakim Noah. But it seems like he is beginning to find an offensive game and has become a great contributor off the bench, the Hornets' lightning-in-a-bottle player.
2. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
I will be honest — I was long skeptical of the "new Michael Kidd-Gilchrist" I had heard about all season long. Was his new jump shot really all that different (Yes. It's the difference between driving, say, this and this). Would he just revert to his old jump shot come gametime? (Answer so far has been no.) Is his offensive game really that much different now?
Well, I am very happy to say I could not have been more wrong with my skepticism.
Prior to the stress reaction injury in his foot, MKG truly looked like a new player. He was aggressive not just on defense, but on offense, He was looking to take his new and improved jump shot whenever he had the opportunity. He singlehandedly kept the Hornets in games at times.
The reason he is not number one on this list? He has not been that same player since he returned from the injury. From Frank Berndt's Hornets' Christmas Wish article:
You can tell that MKG is still trying to find the form and confidence he had pre-injury. He is not the same player he was then, but he is still one of the biggest difference makers on this team, a player worthy of being drafted number two overall just a few years ago. Sure, we expected MKG to be better this year. But that pre-injury good? I don't know many who saw that coming. Lord knows how much worse off the Hornets would be without him, so here's hoping, like Frank wrote a few days ago, that MKG continues to stay healthy and grow as a player.
1. Cody Zeller
Cody Zeller had a very slow start to his NBA career and really picked it up in the second half of last season, as readers of this site surely remember. But could he keep it going into his second season? The quick answer is yes, and then some.
I mean, first off, Zeller is now doing things like this:
That alone is a big change from rookie year Cody Zeller. On media day, Zeller talked about how he spent the offseason bulking up in order to play more center this season, and it seems to have really helped his game overall. He has also spent time working on his jumper. In his rookie year he shot 28.6 percent when catching and shooting and 27.5 percent on shots 16-24 feet from the hoop. So far this year, Zeller is shooting 36.6 percent when catching and shooting and 36 percent on shots 16-24 feet from the hoop.
Combine his new physicality with an ever-improving jump shot and you get the new look Cody Zeller, a player that could've been called the team's MVP at one point this year. He is a force on offense and defense who has worked his way from the bench to a starter's role and has been the biggest surprise to fans this season. Many surely saw him continuing his progress from last year, but I doubt many saw him progressing as far as he has.
Stats from NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com.