There has been one recurring theme in nearly every James Borrego press conference since he was named head coach of the Charlotte Hornets in 2018—player development.
Borrego rose through the ranks of a Spurs organization that built its dynasty around the development of unheralded players like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and helped turned Kawhi Leonard from a post-lottery pick into arguably the best player in the NBA. When he left the nest to run his own team, he brought that focus on development with him. He went out and got guys like Jay Hernandez, a well known player trainer, for his coaching staff to further the cause.
All that emphasis is paying off early in Borrego’s tenure. A number of young players the Hornets have brought in recent seasons are showing rapid improvement, even in expanded roles.
The Hornets lost a lot of good basketball players last summer, so they were understandably projected to be one of the worst teams in the league this season. So far, they’re not. They play hard, and they play together. They have their fair share of issues, namely protecting the ball and protecting the basket, but they at least play competent basketball. And this is happening with youth dominating the rotation. The Hornets are the third youngest team in the league, and the few older veterans on the roster are taking a back seat to guys in their early to mid-20s.
Through the first five games, several young Hornets players have shown huge leaps in their growth as a player. Yes, five games is almost nothing in the grand scheme of things, but we’ll worry about sample sizes when there’s a bigger size to sample.
The poster children of the Hornets player development are Miles Bridges and Devonte’ Graham. Bridges averaged 7.5 points per game and shot 46.4% from the field and 32.5% from deep as a rookie. So far this season, he’s averaging 14.6 points on 50.0% shooting from the field and 41.7% from deep. But more important than the numbers, he looks more confident and capable attacking the rim offensively. On defense, he’s showing signs of a potential game changing defender. He gave Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James all they could handle when left on an island. Now he has to translate that ability into a team setting.
Devonte’ Graham has lit the world on fire this season. He was a bit player as a rookie, appearing in just over half the team’s games. He’s been anything but that this season, and he’s perhaps been the team’s best player. He’s averaging 16.4 points and 7.6 assists per game off the bench while canning 51.5% of his triples. He’s in complete command of the offense and plays with poise beyond that of a second year player, a total steal for a second round pick.
Those two are just the most prominent examples so far. Rookie PJ Washington has been a revelation, something the Hornets haven’t had out of a rookie in what seems like forever. Malik Monk has played with much more composure this season, and his efficiency is through the roof compared to where it was in his first two seasons. Dwayne Bacon has struggled this season, but he looked an NBA player at the end of last season, which is an accomplishment for a second rounder. Even Cody Zeller, the 27-year-old elder statesman of the group, has suddenly turned into a sharp shooting double double machine.
The Hornets may not be a good team this season, but they have a lot of individual pieces to be excited about. But more exciting than the players is the fact that this team is committed to making its players better, and they know how to do it. That bodes well for the success and sustainability of the Hornets long term.