2015-16 Statistics: 12.7 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 54.1 FG%, 42.9 3PT% (Averages through seven games)
On January 31, 2016, in just his second game since returning from a torn labrum suffered four months earlier, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist knocked down a 3-pointer in the first half against the Los Angeles Lakers. Not long after, he knocked down another. He finished with 19 points and 12 rebounds that night, shooting 6-of-7 from the field and 2-of-2 from behind the arc.
I remember that night more for how I felt watching MKG than by the result. Going 2-of-2 from the 3-point line typically isn’t noteworthy, and yet I found myself overwhelmed with excitement. It wasn’t just that he made them, but rather what it could mean for his future, and by extension, the future of the Charlotte Hornets.
Nearly 10 months later, we don’t have an answer. Kidd-Gilchrist would re-tear the labrum five games later, ending his season after remarkably coming back the first time. He’s fully recovered now, and at 23, about to enter his 5th season. However, four years after being drafted second overall, MKG remains more of a question rather than an answer. At this point, we still don’t know how good he can be, and how much better he can make the Hornets.
What we do know about him is that he gives the Hornets a dynamic that can’t be replicated by any other player on the roster. He’s athletic, full of energy, and plays with high intensity and a mindset that refuses to accept losing as an option. It’s the type of attitude that makes him easy to root for.
But Kidd-Gilchrist’s style of play has also cost him. Not since Gerald Wallace have we seen a player play as hard as MKG, and like it did with Crash, it has cost him time on the court. He suffered a concussion his rookie season, then broke his hand the following one. In 2014-15, a foot injury kept him out for periods of time, and then last season’s shoulder injury cost him nearly all of it. None of these injuries are re-occurring, but in a sense they work the same way. Like those who constantly battle with bad hamstrings or knees, the feeling is that MKG’s next injury isn’t an if, but a when.
His injuries, and the 126 games he has missed because of them, have helped fuel the views of many who see him as the difference between what makes the Hornets good versus great. For years, we saw the effect he had on the court — numbers aside, if he was playing, Charlotte had a chance to win. When he didn’t play, they generally lost. That changed last season, as the Hornets won 48 games while MKG played in only seven of them, going 5-2 while he was healthy. It’s this that has many wondering just how much better they would have been had he stayed healthy.
There’s no question that Kidd-Gilchrist is a talented player. Kemba Walker believes he is in for a “huge year, a great year” while Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams both agree that he makes a difference when he’s on the court.
And then there’s Coach Clifford, who echoes his players thoughts, and even referred to him as a “free agent”, which, if you’re an Arsenal fan like me, cuts a little too closely to how Arsene Wenger has described the likes of Jack Wilshere or Abou Diaby, two once promising and gifted players plagued by injuries, after they returned from their latest months long absence due to yet another injury. But after missing 75 games, you can understand Clifford’s reasoning.
When Kidd-Gilchrist plays this season, he, along with Batum, will give the Hornets a ton of length at the wing positions. He will be assigned to defend every team’s best perimeter player, which will free up Batum from that defensive duty, and give him more room to focus on the offensive side of things. His size and versatility also allows him to defend nearly every position on the floor, which should help when the Hornets decide to switch on ball screens. He’s also a great defensive rebounder, and can lead a fast break on his own as opposed to passing out to a guard.
Offensively, he works better in transition, than in the halfcourt. Give him space on the fastbreak, and he’ll find a way to finish at the rim. His limited shooting range could affect spacing in the halfcourt, which is why his jumper needs to improve. That said, the spacing provided by Walker, Batum, Williams, and others means teams won’t be able to pack the paint, giving MKG more room to attack the hoop.
Whether or not he improves as an outside shooter, the other parts of his game — his defense, energy, and intangibles — more than compensate for the poor shot. As cliched as it sounds, he’s a difference maker, and it’s why his health is the most important factor for the Hornets this season.
Charlotte has enough talent without Kidd-Gilchrist to make the playoffs, but to truly gauge just how far they can go, MKG has to stay healthy. As it stands, his strengths make the Hornets a better team, but a healthy season would finally allow him the chance to pay off the hard work he’s put in. He’s spent years re-constructing his jump shot, getting it to a place where defenders would finally have to respect it. He doesn’t have to become a 3-point shooter, in fact a consistent mid-range jumper would be enough to dramatically improve his offensive game. Again though, all this depends on his ability to stay healthy.
The doubts come over as to whether he will. Given how hard he plays, you would expect the answer would be no, but at the same time, no one wants him to change the way he plays, as doing so changes the identity of who he is. Ultimately, the doubts over whether he can stay healthy will remain until he proves otherwise. That said, their remains a lot of optimism about the player he can become, and what the Hornets can become with him.