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It’s not time to panic about Malik Monk’s early struggles

Monk has struggled in limited playing time so far, but it isn’t time worry about his long-term development.

Milwaukee Bucks v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

When the Charlotte Hornets selected Malik Monk with the 11th overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft, there were some undoubtedly high expectations by fans and scouts. Many expected Monk to be able to step in almost immediately and be not only a solid role player but an above average starter as well.

Let's rewind to that day. I covered draft night for At The Hive, and remember how excited many were about this big-name prospect. There were about seven or eight guards that were very highly touted of in the NBA draft, and all were all projected to go in the top ten. Charlotte, of course, had the 11th pick, making it unlikely to come away with one of these prospects. However, when Sacramento traded the 10th overall pick to the Portland Trail Blazers, most watching the draft knew that Charlotte would have an opportunity to select the high-firepower guard from Kentucky.

Then, it happened. Rich Cho and Michael Jordan selected the nineteen-year-old, from the Kentucky Wildcats over the likes of Donovan Mitchell, Luke Kennard, and Bam Adebayo. In fact, in a poll that was run among Hornets fans before the draft (where 227 total votes were tallied), 27 percent of fans agreed the Hornets should trade up for Monk, while 70 percent agreed that Charlotte should take him if available. In fact, only three percent of Hornets fans would have picked another player over Monk (seven total votes).

It was a pick out of the ordinary. It wasn’t a ‘Charlotte’ pick. It shattered the stereotypes of the Hornets always picking big, white, unathletic centers. Monk, when asked to describe his own game in one word, said, “Electric”. As you can tell by his own response, this is not the typical Charlotte first round pick. When you think of a Hornets’ draft pick (before the 2017 NBA Draft), your thought probably floats around three ideas. A lengthy defensive guard, a grit-and-grind wing, or a defensive center. Malik Monk fits into none of the above.

However, disappointment struck after Monk missed Orlando Summer League with an ankle injury sustained in a pre-draft workout. Recovery took longer than expected, but Monk eventually made his debut in the preseason. He performed well, averaging 16 points, three rebounds, and two assists, managing to only turn the ball over once per game, and more importantly, remaining healthy. As if the expectations were not already high, this raised the bar another degree. But many forget that preseason is, well, the only preseason.

In the regular season, Monk has been streaky to say the least. Other than a few games, he has been a below average role player. His best scoring outbreak came against the Milwaukee Bucks on November 1st. He scored 25 points on 10-17 shooting, most of which came in the fourth quarter.

He is also currently one of the worst defensive players in the NBA. He ranks in the bottom 29 percent in points per possession allowed, giving up almost a full point (0.96) points per possession when his man shoots the ball. Monk also struggles to defend spot-up shooters. He ranks in the bottom nine percent, allowing a full 1.296 points per possession when his man is spotting up. This isn’t good. Considering Clifford’s defense-first mentality, this stat alone makes the fact that Monk minutes are disappearing not surprising.

That said, rookies often struggling defensively, and most teams that do actually have a top rookie don’t have any players to play above their selected player. For instance, Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls has been just plain bad on defense this season. However, what separates him from Monk are a few different factors. First of all, Markkanen has been the main scoring threat on a team that many would consider, the worst in the NBA. The Bulls aren’t exactly a playoff threat (despite beating the Hornets now twice).

It’s important to remember that the Hornets are in a win-now-or-everybody-might-be-fired mode. Cho is in a contract year, and Steve Clifford is on the hot seat. This is part of the reason that Monk will a) not start many, if not any games this season, or b) get many minutes when he does actually play. It’s all about circumstance.

Monk is the team’s third-best shooting guard behind Nicolas Batum and sixth-man Jeremy Lamb. When a team is trying to win games, they do not exactly want their third-best shooting guard playing more than 20 minutes per game.

However, there is an argument that Monk could play point-guard instead. When Michael Carter-Williams was out with an injury to start the season, Monk played backup to Kemba Walker, and even showed off some flashy passes and nice vision as well. And with the way MCW has been playing recently, there is definitely a solid argument to play Monk over him. But once again, when a borderline playoff team is trying to play with the big dogs, playing a nineteen-year-old with little point guard experience over experienced players is not ideal. In fact, it's a wildcard move. It is not a Steve Clifford-esque move.

Let’s compare Monk’s efficiency to Lamb, Batum, and Carter-Williams.

FG% of Active Hornet Guards

Name FG% 3P% FT% eFG%
Name FG% 3P% FT% eFG%
Nic Batum 44% 36% 84% 52%
Jeremy Lamb 44% 33% 83% 50%
Malik Monk 34% 33% 75% 44%
Michael Carter-Williams 40% 25% 70% 31.00%
Career Stats*

As you can see, if you compare Monk’s game so far to the likes of Batum and Lamb, it isn’t even a contest.

So, why is Monk not playing instead of MCW?

It’s simple. Would you rather have an experienced player, who is solid defensively, that has size, or an inexperienced rookie who has not found a rhythm yet? This is not just confined to Clifford. I’d bet that nine out of ten coaches in the NBA would choose the experienced vet above the rookie. There have been two coaches fired so far this year. Clifford is not attempting to be the third.

Criticism aside, I still believe in Monk. I was ecstatic when the Hornets drafted him, and wrote this on him pre-draft:

Before the draft, I wrote about how it would be mindless to pass on Monk:

“Malik Monk is the most explosive player in this draft, but he is no safe bet. He is inconsistent on defense and also settles for mid-range jumpers instead of using his vision to creates shots. That being said, he is also the draft’s the best shooter, and if the Hornets are able to select him with the 11th overall pick, it would be foolish to pass on him.”

We should not be worried about Monk’s start. There is little reason to panic. He has the ability to be one of the future stars in today’s league. Sure, players like Donovan Mitchell make you concerned, considering Mitchell was taken two spots after Monk. But in reality, it takes years to fully evaluate and compare players, and even then, no comparison will be fully accurate.

But here’s a comparison that could be eye-opening. Compare Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker to Monk through their first 20 games:

Malik Monk vs Devin Booker in their first 20 games.

Name Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Name Minutes Points Rebounds Assists
Devin Booker 14.6 6 1.2 0.7
Malik Monk 16.9 7.1 0.2 1.8

It may be hard to remember, especially when a player like Monk falls into your hands, but greatness does not happen overnight. It’s also important to remember that Booker and Monk were very similar players coming out of college. They both went to Kentucky, both were expected to go earlier in the draft. Both were also the best shooters of their class, and both are horrible on defense. This comparison strikes many similarities.

The point is, don’t panic. Some rookies adjust quicker than others, and it often depends on many factors. Monk has potential, he just may need more time to realize it.