Unless you watched a lot of Charlotte Bobcats basketball last season, you might not know just how important Josh McRoberts was to the team during possibly their most successful season in franchise history.
The only consistent 3-point threat in the regular starting lineup, McRoberts helped spread the floor when it was desperately needed, clearing room for more dominant scorers like Al Jefferson and Kemba Walker, both of whom needed space in the interior. However, his most valuable attribute was likely his passing ability. He played as a combination stretch four and a passing hinge, finding open men on all areas of the court. One play from last season that remains memorable was when McRoberts received a pass in the corner, then swung a bounce pass down the baseline past three defenders to find an open shooter behind the 3-point line in the opposite corner.
In fact, McRoberts' passing ability was so strong that he assisted 21.9% of team field goals while he was on the floor, good for the fifth-highest assist rate on the team. However, if you don't include the point guards (Walker, Ramon Sessions, Jannero Pargo, and Luke Ridnour), McRoberts led the team in that category by a significant margin. His very low usage rate shows that Josh McRoberts was very, very good at finding open teammates to score while not dominating ball possession himself. When your power forward has that type of skill in addition to the ability to knock down threes when he's left open, that's a great asset for any starting lineup.
Of course, McRoberts signed with the Miami Heat this summer, leaving the Hornets with a vacancy at the four. At the moment, there are three options for his full-time replacement: newly-signed free agent Marvin Williams (who may or may not see time at small forward as well); top-10 pick Noah Vonleh; and the only one of the three returning from last year's squad, Cody Zeller. None of those three have quite the skillset that McRoberts brought, so this season's starting five will not operate like the previous unit. But how likely are the Hornets to replace McRoberts' production in other ways? Let's take a look at each.
Marvin Williams: Williams has spent the majority of his career playing as a small forward, but is a natural four at this point in his career and will probably end up earning the starting job over the two young players, at least at the start of the season. He's recently developed a semi-consistent outside shot, though not as good as McRoberts', and his versatility will allow a lot of room for adjustment on both offense and defense. In this respect, he, of any of the three options, is probably the most similar to McRoberts. That is, of course, if you ignore the huge disparity between their passing abilities. Williams isn't a ballhog or a possession-eater, but he doesn't have the court vision of his predecessor. He is terrific at keeping the ball under control, with one of the lowest turnover rates in the league, and it's clear that he will have a very positive effect on the team, but his lack of a single great ability will likely limit his potential to impact the game. While Williams is a very solid addition to the team, he alone won't replace McRoberts.
Cody Zeller: Ah, Cody. After a (let's face it) dreadful start to the season, the fourth overall pick in last year's draft really did turn his game around and showed a lot of improvement over the second half of the season. In 53 games before the All-Star break, Zeller was struggling on both ends of the court and not making nearly enough positive defensive plays to justify his fairly high foul rate. He also shot an abysmal 38 percent from the field, partly (but not wholly) because of poor shot selection. In the 29 games after the All-Star break, Zeller nearly matched his block total, substantially cut his foul rate, doubled his free throw rate, and shot .507 from the floor. While those two months worth of games might not be enough to show the full picture, I think we know what Zeller is capable of now. He's still not an impact passer the way McRoberts was, and he has yet to show the same comfort with his elbow jumper that he had at Indiana, but he will impact the game in different ways, namely rebounding, interior defense (while McRoberts wasn't necessarily a shortcoming in this aspect of the game, he didn't seem to excel there either), and quickness. I don't think Zeller is ready to take over from McRoberts offensively yet, but he can bring value to the team in areas where McRoberts wasn't at his best.
Noah Vonleh: Vonleh won't start just yet, and since he is one of the youngest players selected from this draft, he might not start for a few years. He's a tough player to project for this season, as he obviously hasn't played a game of professional basketball yet. In college, however, Vonleh showed an ability to knock down the jump shot (16-33 from beyond the arc) and play multiple positions on both ends of the floor. His passing eye looked very untrained, though, so in comparison to McRoberts, he also falls short. Like Zeller, though, Vonleh has a lot of athleticism that could impact a game in ways that McRoberts couldn't; he's just as quick as Zeller, and stronger than either his fellow Hoosier alum or McRoberts. Vonleh will eventually end up as a player who has a lot to bring to a team, as he is so full of talent, but all of it is raw. For someone whose skills and feel for the game are still so unpolished, Vonleh probably can't be counted on to fill a starting role on a playoff team his rookie season, but if Steve Clifford can instill strong defensive instincts in Vonleh as he did with so many others on the Bobcats last season, Vonleh absolutely can be a bench asset from day one.
In terms of replacing the power forward alone, I think Rich Cho & Co. did a great job finding both a veteran and rookie asset, while making sure a recent top-five pick would be able to have a quality role on the team. These three players might not make up for the absence of certain skills McRoberts brought, but they will be given the opportunity to create a lot of value in other aspects of the game. The offense will suffer a bit for not having an elite frontcourt passer anymore, but that does not necessarily mean that the team's overall ball movement will be a problem all year. It just means the Hornets might need to find different ways to win this season.