There’s a famous American phrase that says, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
However, if one believes that statement to be true, then the opposite also rings true, right? If something is broken, then fixing it should probably be a top priority. Well, unfortunately, the Charlotte Hornets’ defense is certainly broken.
They rank 26th in the NBA in defensive rating (112.8) and 29th in points allowed per game (115.5). Charlotte has only allowed less than 100 points seven times this year, and they’ve allowed 120 or more 15 times.
In games where the Hornets allow 120 or more points, they are 3-15. When they allow less than 110? 13-0. There’s a clear pattern.
Most people see the solution as trading for a big man at the deadline. Names such as Myles Turner and Jusuf Nurkic are seemingly brought up on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, other suggestions include better perimeter play, new coaching schemes, or simply implementing improved defensive communication.
Regardless, one clear change that could be made is experimenting with different rotations. To make that even simpler, though, maybe James Borrego could give some new players a chance. While the obvious answer is throwing some more minutes Cody Martin’s way, there’s another, unassuming player just waiting in the wings - JT Thor.
Thor, the 37th overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, has only appeared in ten games for the Hornets this year. Of those, only five included non-garbage-time minutes. However, out of everyone on the Hornets roster, Thor has the most potential on the defensive end.
This isn’t to say that he’s the best defender, because that title obviously goes to Martin, but in terms of upside, there’s no one that compares. His length alone makes him an extremely intriguing prospect on that end of the floor. Just look at this ridiculous block.
The verticality Thor gets due to his wingspan is ridiculous. He recorded the second-longest wingspan at the 2021 NBA Combine (7’3.25’’) and the fifth-longest standing reach (9’2.0’’).
Combine those stats with his clear awareness on the defensive end, and the Hornets might have a piece worth playing around with. Thor’s definitely a raw prospect, but he’s shown flashes of elite defensive ability that no one else on the roster has displayed.
Take a look at this block against the Philadelphia 76ers. Thor took the time to assess the situation, left his man in the corner, and shifted over to contest Furkan Korkmaz at the rim.
Most people look at this play and praise Thor’s ridiculous physical attributes. And that’s totally fair, plays like this one are where his length really shines. However, the defensive intelligence that went into this sequence is what really makes Thor special.
There was no window for Korkmaz to pass out of that, and if there was, it was tiny. He easily got past Kelly Oubre Jr. and even got around PJ Washington, somehow. That left Thor as the last line of defense, and normally, he’d be chasing his man to the corner, or at least following him closely.
Instead, Thor recognized the play in front of him, met Korkmaz at the rim, and denied him. Plays like this are where his freakish physical attributes and quiet defensive IQ show up. Here’s another prime example where Thor stuffs Davion Mitchell on the drive.
His athleticism also allows him to recover on plays where he finds himself a step behind. Just look here. Thor gets tripped up, falls backward, and still manages to collect himself and block Buddy Hield on the drive.
This leads to yet another plus of throwing Thor into the deep end a bit more - switchability. With the bigs the Hornets play regularly - Mason Plumlee, Nick Richards, and even PJ Washington to a degree - they don’t really have the option to switch on the perimeter. It’s seen most often with Plumlee, but Charlotte’s bigs often end up dropping back in the pick n’ roll, making life a lot easier for the opposing team.
Not with Thor, though. While he may not have the physical strength to compete with some of the heavier bigs down low (something he’ll undoubtedly be working on), he’s quick and smart enough to keep up with guards on the outside. Look at this play against Davion Mitchell - a six-foot guard who was heralded for his elite, first-step speed out of college.
Thor is scrambling in rotations but ends up having to guard Mitchell. He sprints out to the perimeter, stays with Mitchell on the drive, and gets a great contest on the shot. Plumlee would have given up a wide-open mid-range with the way he’s played the pick n’ roll this season.
It’s not just Mitchell, either. Thor is staying with some of the league’s best guards on the perimeter. Here, he takes the switch onto Trae Young and forces him to turn the ball over.
Not only does he stick with Young, but he hovers between both Young and Clint Capela. Thor’s position makes it so Young, one of the best passers in the league, can’t fit a pass into Capela in the paint. If Thor fully pressed up on Young, the Atlanta Hawks guard likely would have found a way to pass around him and get it to Capela for an easy layup.
The rookie out of Auburn used his length to deny both the shot and the pass on a play where most of his teammates were out of position. Young got called for the carry, and the Hornets got the ball back.
It’s these sorts of minor plays where Thor really flashes his defensive chops. If he can put on some weight and get some real reps in the league, he has a chance to be a special defender at this level.
Obviously, there are certain offensive drawbacks to giving Thor extended run. He hasn’t been able to shoot the ball consistently, despite nailing 36.4 percent of his threes in the G-League. He has a lot of room to grow on that end and still needs to find his offensive identity.
That being said, with how elite Charlotte’s offense has been this season, inserting a defensive-minded player like Thor into the lineups at times wouldn’t hurt that much. Other players would pick up the slack, and things would (at the very least) even out on the defensive end.
All of this isn’t to say that Thor deserves to be playing 30 minutes a night. But throwing him into the regular rotation a bit more would do nothing but help a Hornets team that’s been abysmal on the defensive side of the ball.
If something’s broken, fix it. Who’s to say Thor can’t be a spark to help ignite that fix?