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The curious case of Malik Monk

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The fourth-year guard has yet to get off the bench during the regular season, and it’s time to wonder when, or if he’ll get a chance

Brooklyn Nets v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Through four regular season games, former Charlotte Hornets lottery pick Malik Monk has been glued to the bench. A positive COVID-19 test shortened Monk’s pre-season and set him back in his preparation for this year, but as he stated in an article by the Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell, he’s now 100% healthy, in-shape, and ready to contribute to the team.

There’s only one problem; he hasn’t been asked to do that yet. James Borrego is tasked with a much tougher job in setting the rotation than in years past, having to balance a developing roster with the front office’s desire to start climbing up the ladder in the Eastern Conference. After he didn’t play in a 20-point blowout win at home that saw two rookies make their NBA debuts, it’s become abundantly clear that Monk is not even on the cusp of Borrego’s rotation right now.

There are two sides to the coin here; obviously, one is “play Malik” and the other is “don’t play Malik,” but it’s a lot more complicated than that. Heads says he deserves to play after showing real signs of improvement last year, both statistically and stylistically as he turned himself from a volume 3-point shooter at Kentucky to an explosive downhill driver and playmaker by year three. Even in his brief pre-season, he made some really nice plays with the ball in his hands (despite shooting terribly due to rust) and his off-ball defense was just as good as it’d been last year. The elite explosiveness in transition will always be there, and there’s still a chance he reverts back to his pre-NBA form and starts shooting again.

However, tails is our current reality, for better or for worse. Borrego has talked about how he wants to shorten the rotation from where it’s at now—usually nine or 10 players—to eight. Less minutes to go around is bad for everyone, not to mention the guys who haven’t even played yet. Nobody in the current rotation has been so bad that they deserve to have their minutes reduced, and guys like Caleb Martin, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels and the rookie centers will all play less than a dozen minutes on most nights anyways. The team’s “big three” of Gordon Hayward, Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier all average under 35 minutes per game, with PJ Washington and Miles Bridges both at 25.8 per game so far. Even when looking beyond the players in direct competition with Monk, there’s simply nowhere to redistribute the minutes from.

Monk has, by far, the highest ceiling of anyone that’s not a regular in the rotation (as Mitch Kupchak has mentioned before) and both sides seem to recognize that, along with the fact that for him to reach his ceiling, he needs minutes similar to what LaMelo Ball or Miles Bridges get as reserves. With McDaniels and the Martin twins playing well enough to justify their court time after establishing spots in the rotation to end the 2019-2020 season and start the pre-season, along with the clear necessity to focus the team’s energy on developing Ball, it just becomes difficult to carve out substantial minutes for Monk.

But to a degree, what reason do the Hornets have not to give Monk a shot? They’re 2-2, Zeller is out for at least another month, and the team seems to play with a collective energy—sometimes good, sometimes not—no matter who is on the floor. It’s undeniable that he improved on both ends of the floor last season, especially in the stretch he had leading up to to the first start of his career, and it’s also undeniable that giving DNP-CDs to a former lottery pick in the year they head into restricted free agency is subpar asset management.

If both parties are resigned to the fact that Monk’s potential will not be reached in Charlotte, he should play and be able to showcase his ability for other teams that may trade for him, and if the Hornets aren’t going to trade him, he should play because they ought to determine if there’s really nothing left in the tank for Monk in the Queen City after all they’ve invested in him before they lose him for nothing.

It’s not like Monk is going to fizzle out of the league after this season; there’s a 100% chance another team picks him up if the Hornets don’t sign him to an extension or tender a qualifying offer, and the Hornets don’t want to get burned for not giving their own guy enough chances. Don’t get me wrong—they’ve given him plenty of chances, but small market teams still can’t afford mistakes like that, and once upon a time, Monk fell to them in the draft. The talent and potential are there, though it’s taken a while for them it all to be unearthed, which he’s owned up to himself on multiple occasions. Monk has grown too much—both on the court and off—for the Hornets to give up in a contract year and not at least get something in return for him and put him in a better situation to succeed.

Monk mentions in the Bonnell article linked in the opening paragraph that he’s grown frustrated. In fairness to him, it must suck to work so hard over the off-season and then not even take off your warmups for the first week of the season in a contract year, but the Hornets are also not in the same place as they were last year when minutes were totally up for grabs. Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier have established themselves as starters in this league, and Ball has shown immense promise in the early-going. Unfortunately, Monk is looking in from the outside of that group right now. He, like everyone on the roster, deserves an honest chance to crack the rotation this year; only time will tell if that chance ever arrives.