Out with the old, in with the new.
For the first time in centuries, the Charlotte Hornets’ center rotation will not feature either one of Bismack Biyombo or Cody Zeller. No position group on the roster had as much turnover as the bigs; apart from PJ Washington’s small ball minutes, whoever is manning the middle will be a fresh face to the Hornets’ lineup.
Vernon Carey Jr. and Nick Richards were both in the locker room last season, but a truncated preseason and the shortened G League season didn’t afford them ample time to acclimate to the NBA and prepare to contribute for the Hornets; in a sense, they’re “new” to the rotation since they each . Kai Jones was added with the 19th pick, but the 221-pounder will likely need to take advantage of developmental opportunities Carey and Richards weren’t able to during their rookie seasons.
The most noticeable addition — at least from the outset of the season — is Mason Plumlee, who arrives after one year in Detroit and is all but a lock to assume the role of starting center. A question that’s been on my mind since general manager Mitch Kupchak swung the draft-night trade for Plumlee and the rights to JT Thor is; did the Hornets get a better starter, a worse starter, or was it a lateral movement from one player archetype to another?
As I’m not the source of definitive basketball knowledge, I’m not sure, but Plumlee and Zeller are quite different players and the backups will be seeing their first non-garbage time NBA action. Hornets fans will be seeing some different things from their big men than in years past.
Plumdog Millionaire vs. The Big Handsome
It’s comforting to know the Hornets’ front office covets big men with top-tier nicknames. Apart from that, Plumlee and Zeller do share a few similar on-court traits; both are good playmakers for their size that don’t space the floor, and neither are very good shot-blockers. LaMelo Ball and Zeller had developed chemistry in pick-and-roll/hand-off actions when Zeller was afforded significant minutes, and it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see a Ball-Plumlee two-man game excel at times this season.
In the preseason opener, Plumlee dished out four assists and was allowed the freedom to bring the ball up the court, providing the Hornets with another layer of versatility. Where Hornets fans will notice the most improvement though, is interior finishing. Plumlee’s has hit 76 percent of his field goals at the rim (defined as shots within four feet of the basket) in each of the past two seasons with 72.5 percent of his attempts coming from that area, both of which hover around the 80th percentile among centers per Cleaning The Glass.
For as good as Zeller was in his years with the Hornets, he was never a particularly efficient finisher at the rim, even on high volume. Last season’s 65 percent mark (per Cleaning The Glass) matched his career-high from the 2018-19 season — which wouldn’t be a problem if he could space the floor, but the Hornets need a reliable big that can convert down low, shoot from distance, or do both. At least we know Plumlee can beat and bang on the block.
There’s also this. The vibes in the locker room this year are going to be immaculate.
Wait.. Mason Plumlee has secretly been a rapper THIS WHOLE TIME?! pic.twitter.com/9u8hEMP1Kq— Dylan Jackson (@TheJacksonDylan) October 6, 2021
Nick & Vern’s opportunity
Technically, Carey Jr. and Richards aren’t “new” to the rotation; Carey Jr. started four games last year but still only compiled 115 total minutes (less than 2.5 full games’ worth of time) played as a rookie, with Richards tallying 63 minutes over 18 games. That is simply not enough time for me to consider them as returning members of the rotation, mostly due to the fact that their first true opportunity to earn meaningful minutes is this year’s training camp.
Richards got the nod in the first preseason game, though it might be unfair to Carey Jr. to assume that means Richards has the upper hand in the depth chart battle since only one center can be on the floor at a time (ideally). With no veterans ahead of them, this is a prime opportunity for one of the second-year bigs to carve out a regular spot in the rotation and head coach James Borrego could really use another trustworthy center, regardless of who it is. Richards’ defensive-minded skillset is probably a bigger need, but Carey Jr.’s offensive upside is mighty intriguing.
How much should we expect from Kai Jones?
Borrego did absolutely nothing to temper our expectations on Hornets media day, saying the high-flying rookie big “will be pushing for minutes” (per AP’s Steve Reed). Exactly when Jones is pushing for minutes is to be determined, but it’s a great sign that he’s earned the confidence of the coaching staff right off the bat.
The Kai Jones Experience is going to be a roller-coaster; there will be highs, and there will be lows, but the highs are going to be so high that oftentimes it’ll be easy to brush aside the lows. Like in this clip, for example.
garbage time kai jones dho operating into a btb mid pullup, whewwwwwww pic.twitter.com/vN9LJagFYx— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) October 5, 2021
How well Jones performs in the preseason games may affect his position on the depth chart, but the majority of those battles are likely taking place behind closed doors in practices. Given that he only played 7 minutes and 46 seconds against the Thunder, it’s hard to glean much right now but if he’s still producing highlights like the one above, that’s just fine.
The “PJ at the five” minutes
Ah, old faithful. The most-tolerable minutes for one of the NBA’s worst center rotations last season came when Washington got to play the five, utilizing his shooting prowess, fluid ball-handling and passing vision to counter the bigger, slower defenders he was often facing as a 6-foot-7 big. The Hornets were porous defensively, but the holes shrunk ever so slightly (by about two points per 100 possessions per Cleaning The Glass) with Washington in the middle of Borrego’s zone.
Asked Borrego how their offseason additions would influence their zone usage this year, said the early focus will be working on their man principles but "zone will be part of our package again this year."— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) September 27, 2021
For now, a Plumlee/Washington rotation with spot minutes from any of the trio of young centers is probably what we can expect to see the Hornets employ. As the season progresses, this is one of the most interesting storylines surrounding the team this year; will Carey Jr. or Richards emerge after an offseason of proper development? Will Jones prove he’s capable of contributing at the NBA level on a consistent basis as a rookie? Either way, the Hornets enter another season with one of the weakest center depth charts in the league. We’ll have to wait and see if they end the season that way, too.