The Charlotte Hornets finished last season dead last in 3-point percentage. General manager Rich Cho vowed to improve the team's shooting, but didn't specify whether he'd find shooting talent in the draft, free agency, or trades. The team's defense was sublime and its core appeared to be nearly complete — Kemba Walker, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Cody Zeller were young, good players — save for its inability to make open jump shots. If the Hornets were going to improve, it seemed logical that it would happen with small moves.
So when the NBA Draft rolled around, the Hornets, holders of the 9th overall pick in the 2015 draft, were linked to prospects like Kelly Oubre Jr., Stanley Johnson, Devin Booker, and Cameron Payne. Each of those players was either a dead-eye shooter or showed promise to develop into one. However, few analysts felt comfortable labelling any of those players a top-10 pick. There were also rumblings that the Hornets might trade their pick for a proven veteran to accelerate their rebuild.
It was difficult to figure out how the Hornets would do what they needed to do, but we all knew exactly what needed to be done.
But out of nowhere, the Hornets selected Frank Kaminsky from Wisconsin, a 7-foot big with a sweet stroke and some guard skills. The problem was that Kaminsky, already 22 years old, would be competing for minutes in what appeared to be a crowded frontcourt composed of Zeller, Al Jefferson, Spencer Hawes, and Bismack Biyombo. Justise Winslow, that year's darling prospect, was still on the board when the Hornets chose Kaminsky. Fans were upset that the Hornets flipped rookie Noah Vonleh to Portland for a possible one-year rental on Nicolas Batum, too. Needless to say, few if any Hornets fans were pleased with Kaminsky's selection. It just seemed, well, wrong.
I still can't believe Charlotte had a chance to pick Winslow and went with Kaminsky. Hope the Hornets lose every game next year.— Jacob Harris (@KingHarris_9) June 26, 2015
Then again, fans rarely react positively to their team's draft selections, so the confusion and spite Kaminsky's selection harvested wasn't much of a surprise. Don't forget, the Hornets made two trades just a week before the draft that saw Gerald Henderson, Lance Stephenson, and Noah Vonleh — all pieces that could have been part of the Hornets' core — move to other cities, and it wasn't clear what the Hornets were trying to build. At that point, the roster looked haphazardly slopped together, with no plan for the present and no vision for the future.
Still, Kaminsky was a 40-percent shooter from behind the arc his last year at Wisconsin, first team All-American, and the national college player of the year. He had the accolades, but there were concerns about his ability to translate to the NBA. Perhaps worst of all, many fans and analysts suggested that he was a high-floor, low-ceiling player. It's awfully ballsy to make that assertion before a player's stepped on an NBA floor, but you know the nature of the NBA blogosphere.
The day after the draft, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Boston Celtics made the Hornets an offer of six draft picks for the 9th overall pick, which they would have presumably used to select Winslow. That too did not go over well with fans initially. After some rudimentary investigative journalism, we pieced together that Danny Ainge's supposed "godfather" offer was anything but, with none of the confirmed picks having any real value:
The general consensus was that one pick is certainly worth less than six of them, because six is a bigger number and people equate bigger numbers with better value.
Except that's not exactly true.
The Celtics reportedly offered a combination of picks from this year's draft — of which they had the 16th, 28th, 33rd and 45th picks — and some picks from future drafts. In and of themselves, their picks from 28 to 45 are essentially negligible in value to the Hornets.
At this point, it looked like fans would never come around on Kaminsky. He represented the Hornets' perceived inadequacies in identifying talent and building a roster, and was yet another reminder that owner Michael Jordan wants to win now more than build something meaningful. For the record, Jordan's moves have mostly panned out in recent years.
And to top things off, Kaminsky called the Hornets the Bobcats and dissed barbecue just days after being drafted. The only way for Kaminsky to repair his image and what he represented would be to play well. And he did just that.
Kaminsky played 10 minutes in his first preseason game, tallying seven points on 3-of-6 shooting (including one made 3-pointer), four rebounds, and one block. He showed remarkable poise for a rookie. Not only was he able to dribble the ball a bit, pass, and shoot, but he showed a deep understanding of defensive principles in the NBA game. He knew just how much to show on help and when to make a rotation. There were hiccups, sure, and it was clear at times that yes, he was a rookie.
But he looked good. Kaminsky finished preseason averaging 7.5 points on 35.1 percent shooting, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists in 19.7 minutes per game. He struggled to make shots at times, but anyone watching carefully saw pure talent.
Early in the regular season, Kaminsky's numbers mirrored his preseason performance. He was still playing just under 20 minutes per game with averages of seven points, 3.4 rebounds, and 1.2 assists before New Year's Day. His field goal percentage climbed to 41.3 percent — better, but still not great — thanks to better shot selection and playing alongside Jeremy Lin in the Hornets' fantastic second unit.
It became clear that head coach Steve Clifford trusted Kaminsky and took pride in developing him. Clifford could often be seen chatting with Kaminsky on the sidelines between plays, and allowed him to inbound the ball in late-game situations. That last point is quite rare in the NBA, as most coaches get veterans or fantastic passers to inbound the ball with the game on the line. Clifford's trust of Kaminsky spoke to a commitment to his development, as recently echoed after Monday's game against the Utah Jazz.
Steve Clifford says using Kaminsky on inbound plays is partially about player development as much as him being the best option. cc: Byron— Adi Joseph (@AdiJoseph) January 18, 2016
That trust has seen Kaminsky's playing time increase to 26.6 minutes per game in January, with Al Jefferson's injury requiring the Hornets to look elsewhere for frontcourt production. Since Jan. 10, his minutes have crawled up to 27.6 minutes per game, and he's responded well, averaging 13.7 points on 48.4 percent shooting, 1.8 made 3-pointers (he's shooting 50 percent since Jan. 10), 6.2 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. He still plays most of his minutes with the Hornets' bench, but Clifford's opened up to playing him alongside Walker, Zeller, and Batum in recent weeks.
Kaminsky not only came into the NBA as a decent player, but he's growing, and he's growing fast. There are times when he looks like the Hornets' best player on defense — a surprise, I know — and he's becoming very dependable as both a catch-and-shoot guy and someone you can throw the ball to to create something out of nothing. Against the Jazz on Monday, Kaminsky finished with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting and seven rebounds, and against the Oklahoma City Thunder last night, followed up with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, six rebounds, and four assists.
Kaminsky's performance early this season has reflected that "high floor" label given to him around the draft, but we're beginning to see that the "low ceiling" tag might've been, well, wrong.
He's just 22 years old, many years away from his prime. The tremendous growth Kaminsky's shown in such a short period of time speaks to a bright future, and the Hornets seem committed to developing him into a core player, and probably a starter.
Now that Zeller's out with a shoulder strain, Kaminsky's minutes will creep into the thirties as he shares time with only Spencer Hawes, Marvin Williams, and Tyler Hansbrough. Clifford's eased up on Hawes and while the veteran will start, don't be surprised if Kaminsky plays the bulk of the frontcourt minutes.
He's good, and Clifford knows it. And from a rookie, that's more than you could ask for.