During his rookie season, Vernon Carey Jr. compiled 115 minutes played over 19 appearances, in four of which he was the Charlotte Hornets’ starting center. As a sophomore big, Carey Jr. will have a much more consistent environment to continue developing his game, which could provide a chance to cement a rotation spot for himself.
When the Hornets drafted Carey Jr. with the 32nd overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, there wasn’t any pressure — from inside the organization or outside — for him to contribute right away with Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller on the roster. A pandemic-ridden year all but eliminated any chance that a developmental rookie big man was going to leave a mark on the season, but nonetheless Carey Jr. still managed a 21-point, 6-rebound performance against Brooklyn in his first career start.
A question the Hornets’ front office should be asking themselves when acquiring any player is; “does this player fit with LaMelo Ball?” In Carey Jr.’s case, the offensive fit is particularly intriguing; aside from spacing the floor as a 3-point shooter, he offers a ton as a pick-and-roll partner for Ball. The touch he has as an under-the-basket finisher has been on full display since his Duke days, and the weight he’s dropped since then seems to have improved his mobility (his hips seem to flip quicker when rolling out of screens/DHOs). He’s already at NBA-level as a low-post scorer, an expanded mid-range game and improved passing out of double-teams and the short-roll would go a long way.
If Carey Jr. can improve enough on his already-solid offensive game, the disadvantages he experiences on the defensive end would be mitigated, at least in part. At 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, he’s big and strong enough to hold his own against the average NBA center, but his length and athleticism limit his ability to both protect the rim and switch onto smaller players and keep them out of the paint. So far in the preseason, Nick Richards has been the first “backup center” off the bench, and Richards has played substantially more minutes than Carey Jr. through the first three games. That could be an indication of where he sits on the depth chart, but there’s still time for things to change before the regular season starts.
Honestly, it wouldn’t be surprising if Carey Jr., Kai Jones and Richards are simultaneously rotating in and out of the Hornets rotation and Swarm rotation. The second-year bigs were essentially robbed of a true rookie season and we knew going into it that both of them would need time to adjust to the league, especially the then-19-year-old Carey Jr. With Mason Plumlee locked in as the starter and PJ Washington small-ball minutes as the only other known commodity in the center rotation, Carey Jr. could plan himself firmly in Charlotte’s future plans with a strong showing in the 21-22 season.