With each passing day, we grow closer to the return of our beloved 19-year-old franchise cornerstone, LaMelo Ball. During a press conference on Monday afternoon, Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego said both Ball and Malik Monk took part in on-court workouts but were unable to participate in live drills (per Jacob Rude, USA TODAY). It’s almost time.
When Ball, then Monk, and then Gordon Hayward all went down with injuries, most of the NBA community put a fork in the Hornets—and that wasn’t wrong, because for a minute it looked real bad with a void of offense and scoring punch in the rotation.
It took a few games to get back in the swing of things, but Devonte’ Graham and Terry Rozier have closely resembled their 2019-2020 selves in helping carry Charlotte through this stretch. The rapid growth of Miles Bridges into a top-three scoring option that creates his some of own offense combined with PJ Washington’s hot-streak from deep (20 3PM in the last five games) have been the headline stories in Charlotte lately, and they deserve it for stepping up when the team needed them.
Graham and Rozier, and to a lesser extent, Brad Wanamaker, had their hands all over this recent bounce-back but seemingly haven’t gotten quite as much shine. Bridges has been incredible, and Jack Simone’s piece on him illustrates that perfectly. Now, it’s my turn to illustrate the importance Charlotte’s trio of guards to the current rotation, because these guys have also been very awesome.
Making plays, making shots, making an impact
At The Hive gives credit where credit is due; Terry Rozier got moved from point guard to shooting guard after a dismal start to last season, but in the month of April he’s adapted to the circumstances and turned himself into a willing passer.
Rozier averages 4.1 assists per game with a 2.12 AST/TO ratio on the season. In April, he’s up to 6.2 dimes per game and a 3.0 AST/TO ratio and that improvement is quite clear on film:
This was Rozier’s fifth assist of the game, not even three minutes into it. Often times, this play is ran with Rozier in Martin’s place, setting a ghost screen and flaring out at full-speed for a catch-and-shoot triple from the wing. Rozier can also fire one himself here, but keeps two defenders occupied with his shooting gravity before kicking it to Martin after the fake.
There’s been a shift in mentality when he takes the floor; he knows that given the situation, the Hornets need him to initiate and create offense rather than just finish plays, and has taken it upon himself to set the tone early in games. Since April 14, Rozier has six games of eight or more assists. He had one such game in the previous 53 contests this season.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his 3-point percentage has dipped to 35.3 percent in April, mostly due to the rise in difficulty of his shot attempts and the extra attention he’s getting as one of few Hornets that can provide consistent offense. He’s still managed to score 20.4 points per game even with the drop in efficiency, and the Hornets have needed every bit of it.
Good basketball players combat shooting slumps by elevating their game in other areas, and that’s exactly what Rozier has done lately.
It took Graham a week or so to adjust back to being the starting point guard and a player that opposing defenses hone in on, which is understandable; few Hornets have had a more up-and-down season than him, which can be partly blamed on an early-season shooting slump, hampering injuries and an inconsistent role as Ball rose to rookie stardom.
Borrego has been outspoken regarding his trust for Graham, recently saying that “No matter what he shoots, he is a positive for this team” (per Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell). Frankly, I agree, and so does his on/off point differential of +11.3 (96th percentile) per Cleaning The Glass. This has been the case since he emerged as a rotational player for the Hornets in 2019, but it’s especially true over the last two games where he’s put up 19 assists to two turnovers. Graham’s decision-making is the most reliable individual skill on the Charlotte roster.
The willingness and ability of the Hornets’ guards to penetrate the lane and kick the ball out to shooters keeps defenses on edge at all times. Defenders can’t over-help or rotate too early/late, or they’re probably giving up an open three to someone who shoots above league-average.
Wanamaker was acquired from the Golden State Warriors for almost nothing at the trade deadline, and at the time it seemed clear he’d be Charlotte’s third point guard, utilized in a “break glass in case of emergency” type of role. In the 12 games since Hayward went down, Wanamaker has played less than 20 minutes in just five of them and has three games with 10 points/five assists or better.
These aren’t gaudy numbers, and they’re not being presented in an effort to make that point, either. As his old coach Brad Stevens has said hundreds of times, Wanamaker is sturdy. He’s Philly tough. He comes off the bench, does what the team asks him to do to the best of his ability, and sits without a qualm when it’s his turn to get subbed out. Coaches can’t ask for more than that from a backup point guard. Shout out to the free throw champion.
In order to convert an opportunity over a defender like the one in the video below, one has to have taken falls similar to this on blacktop countless times. The coordination, body control and focus to hit the leaner while getting knocked off your spot is impressive. It’s really fun to watch Wanamaker make his way to a spot, catch the ball, work up a full head of steam, drop his shoulder into his defender and then finish strong in the lane.
For Borrego, each of these guards presents a different matchup problem; Rozier can let it fly from anywhere inside of 28 feet and hit pull-ups in the mid-range, Graham is an elite pull-up 3-point shooter and decision-maker, and Wanamaker provides rim pressure and rarely makes mistakes on either end. The three-guard lineups have been an interesting experiment even if the results haven’t been overly promising, and in a way it provides a drawing board for the responsibilities Graham and Rozier will have when Ball returns and he’s inserted into three-guard lineups.
In a time where many thought the Hornets would be dead in the water—and they were for seven games, to be fair—they’ve been able to make something out of it. Bridges has blossomed, Washington is shooting with the utmost confidence, Cody Martin is impacting the game reminiscent of the end of his last season, and the Hornets’ guards have paced the offense and lifted them up during cold stretches.
Oh yeah, they also get Ball and Monk back in the near future. Good luck in the play-in, Eastern Conference.