Since December 19, the Charlotte Hornets are 8-5. They're averaging 97.4 points per game over that stretch — two points more than their season average — while limiting opponents to just 94.7 points per game — nearly five points better than their season average. This is particularly interesting because December 19 is the first game Lance Stephenson missed with the groin injury that's still plaguing him today, and because the Hornets haven't had Al Jefferson available to them in their last six games.
However, December 19 was also the first day that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist played more than 30 minutes since he returned from a foot injury.
Before Kidd-Gilchrist went down, he was having a phenomenal season. His statistics, while decent, were underwhelming — 9.8 points per game on 62.5 percent shooting, along with 5.5 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 23 minutes per game — but anyone who watched the Hornets closely knew that Kidd-Gilchrist had taken a massive step in his development. He was considerably more assertive on both ends of the floor and sported a confidence in his offensive ability that was unseen in seasons past.
He became a leader of sorts, too. While Kidd-Gilchrist has always been a vocal, intense player, this season saw him take on a far more authoritative role, especially on defense, when it came to barking out orders. Coupled with his leadership by example — you know, the relentless pursuit of loose balls, the tenacity on the offensive boards and the unforgiving intense defense — Kidd-Gilchrist had quietly become the heart and soul of the Hornets.
Unfortunately, a stress reaction in his left foot caused him to miss 12 games in which the Hornets went 1-11, with the sole win coming against the middling Phoenix Suns on November 14. When he eventually recovered, head coach Steve Clifford made it clear that Kidd-Gilchrist would be eased back into the rotation and had him come off the bench for his first few games. He was noticeably rusty in those games and averaged 7.8 points on 54.5 percent shooting, 4.6 rebounds and 0.4 assists in 17.4 minutes per game in his first five games back, but quickly returned to form.
Since then, Kidd-Gilchrist has averaged 10.7 points on 43.7 percent shooting, eight rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 28.5 minutes per game. The drop in shooting efficiency was expected, as the team lost Stephenson to injury on the date the split begins, and lost Jefferson a few games later. With a larger role on offense being a necessity, Kidd-Gilchrist has responded marvelously, especially for a player widely regarded as having a very limited offensive game.
In fact, Kidd-Gilchrist is creating far more of his own offense than ever before. Last season, 68.7 percent of his 2-point field goal makes were assisted. This season, that number jumped to 73.3 percent, but from December 19 onward, it dipped to 69.2 percent and from December 31 — the first game Al Jefferson missed — it fell even further to just 60.7 percent. The strange part? His shooting percentages actually stayed the same despite creating 9.2 percent more of his own offense.
A lot of the credit for Kidd-Gilchrist's improved offense goes to the work he put in with assistant coach Mark Price in the offseason. He and Price worked tirelessly on completely rebuilding his jumpshot from the ground up, to the point where it looks almost nothing like it did last season. Clifford even remarked that he's never seen such a dramatic improvement in a player's jumper in his entire coaching career, let alone over just one season.
Last season, Kidd-Gilchrist would come off a curl with the intention of cutting to the basket, but defenses would often rotate and take away his lane to an easy score. In turn, he'd be wide open at the free throw line, whereupon he'd receive a pass for a seemingly easy jumper. There were two outcomes in this situation: one, Kidd-Gilchrist would stand motionless like a deer in the headlights of an oncoming vehicle before passing the ball back out, or two, he'd reluctantly throw up an ugly jumpshot, which seldom found the bottom of the basket unless it was an airball.
This season, Kidd-Gilchrist can be seen catching the ball on the wing, taking two dribbles to his strong hand and confidently launching a midrange jumper at the net if the defense cuts off his drive. It's not just his form that's improved, it's his confidence level.
The numbers agree. Last season, Kidd-Gilchrist converted on just 28.2 percent of his midrange jumpshots according to NBA.com. Not surprisingly, he only took 1.4 midrange jumpers per game. This season, he's making 42.9 percent of his midrange jumpers and taking a career-high 2.4 of them per game. He's taking more, and he's making more.
While his improved jumpshot is encouraging, there are some areas of concern. For example, 83.3 percent of Kidd-Gilchrist's midrange jumpers are considered assisted this season. And, while he's taking more shots per game with Stephenson and Jefferson out, defenses are still covering him the same way, and his shooting percentages have dropped anyway. On the season overall, 69.5 percent of Kidd-Gilchrist's shots are considered tightly contested. Since December 31 (the Hornets' first game without Jefferson), that number has actually dropped to 68.7 percent, but his shooting percentages haven't gone up. In fact, his field goal percentage has dropped from 50 percent before December 19 to 43.7 percent after.
Still, it's important to remember that Kidd-Gilchrist is 21 years old. Considering that he came into the NBA with scouts and analysts suggesting that he had no offensive game to speak of and very little chance of developing one, it's both relieving and awe-inspiring to see him become somewhat of an offensive weapon. His defense and winning attitude are what got him into the NBA. Anything he develops beyond that is a bonus.
There's no question that Kidd-Gilchrist has a long road ahead of him, but if this season is a sign of things to come, he may soon develop into one of the better two-way forwards in the league. And, along with his heart and undying desire to win, there's little doubt that Kidd-Gilchrist is quickly becoming the Hornets' most valuable asset. He's not just becoming a better basketball player, he's becoming a better leader.
For a team seemingly lacking direction, that's quite the silver lining.