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Hornets Summer League Notebook: Kai Jones, LJ Figueroa, and Smooth McGowens

The Hornets lost to the Pacers in their Summer League opener, but there are still plenty of things to takeaway from the contest.

2022 NBA Summer League - Charlotte Hornets v Indiana Pacers Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Summer League is supposed to be a time for growth. The end results of the games don’t matter in the grand scheme of things, and the players involved should mainly be focused on improving. That point stands for the Charlotte Hornets, whose Summer League team has some players that could turn into potential rotation pieces.

But while all of that rings true, it’s tough to look past a loss as brutal as the one Charlotte suffered against the Indiana Pacers on Friday night. The final score showed a deficit of just 12 points, but watching the game, it was clear that the Hornets were simply outmatched.

Nevertheless, there were still important things to take away from the contest that had nothing to do with the final score. Players impressed, lineups failed, and Kai Jones took a ton of jumpers. Let’s start there.

1. Kai Jones is confident

That’s a very kind way of putting things. It’s abundantly clear that Jones is comfortable taking three after three, no matter how many he misses. That sort of unwavering belief is great. It means that he’ll assumedly never lose faith in himself. But going 0-for-10 from three-point range is still rough.

Most of the shots he took were good looks, but some of them weren’t even close to going in. Jones’ jump shot looks broken. It’s clunky, too high, and apparently also inconsistent. It’s not Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-level bad (nothing ever will be), but he needs to work on that if he wants to earn serious minutes in the regular season.

That’s especially true when considering he’ll be run at the four more often than not. With Mark Williams, Mason Plumlee, and Nick Richards all clogging up the center position, don’t be surprised to see some Jones-at-the-four action. If he can’t knock down his threes, the spacing will be rough, and that’s definitely not ideal.

All that being said, Jones went 5-for-5 on two-pointers. His freakish athletic ability even showed up at times. It’s clear that he’s trying to become the floor-spacer Charlotte wants him to be, but right now, he’s far more comfortable driving to the rim (with or without the ball) and catching lobs.

2. Three-big lineups are a no-go

Speaking of Jones playing at the four, the three-big lineup was definitely not ideal. In theory, a lineup with Jones, Richards, and JT Thor should be stark on the defensive end, but a little ugly on the offensive end. Well, the offense was definitely ugly, but it’s tough to say that the defense made up for it. Some things just don’t work.

Jones should be able to play the power forward position (once he starts shooting a bit better) because of his defensive versatility, and the same can be said for Thor. But when you start asking either to play small forward, that’s when things get tough. Neither is sharp enough on the offensive end to play the three for long stretches. Add in the fact that Richards is definitively a center, and the Hornets should only have to of those three on the floor at any given time.

3. LJ Figueroa?

This definitely wasn’t on my Hornets Summer League bingo card. Figueroa showed out against the Pacers, going 6-for-6 from the field and 2-for-2 from three-point range. He finished second on the team in scoring and was one of the more impressive players on an otherwise bumpy night for Charlotte.

Figueroa declared for the NBA Draft in 2020, went undrafted, returned to school, then went undrafted again. He competed in Summer League last year, too, but has yet to stick on an NBA roster. The 24-year-old definitely looked the part of an NBA player on Friday, though.

His performance went beyond just the stats, though. Figueroa played with great energy and looks like the type of player who could be a solid glue guy on the end of the bench, at the very least.

It’s way too early to jump the gun, but Figueroa has a real opportunity now. His performance against Indiana was likely enough to make Charlotte’s coaches go, ‘wait a second, let’s take a closer look here.’ The Hornets are likely to have a two-way spot open this year, and if Figueroa can keep up this pace, he’ll put himself firmly in the running for that spot.

4. Mark Williams is huge

Okay, so this is a bit of a cop out, but it’s true. Everyone knew Williams was a big dude coming out of college, but to see him out there in a Hornets uniform was wild. He made most of the other players look like high schoolers. His sheer size was impressive, even though he didn’t play too well.

Williams’ actual performance didn’t end up living up to expectations. He shot just 2-for-8 from the field and ended the night with five points and eight rebounds, but he also notched two blocks. Just watching the way he carries himself out there is enough for fans to realize that he has the potential to be great on both ends. H’s fearless on defense, has the size to be an amazing lob threat, and is big enough to bully smaller centers. Poor performance aside, fans should be amped about Williams.

5. Is it Nick Richards time?

At 24 years old and with two years of NBA experience, Richards should be expected to perform well in Summer League. However, what he showed on Friday could bode well for his future in Charlotte. Heading into the summer, Richards’ leash was the shortest it had ever been. Vernon Carey Jr. was dealt in a trade as salary-filler last season, and it felt like Richards could potentially be next.

However, if he can bring what he did on Friday to the NBA, then he has a spot on the Hornets. Plumlee won’t be around for long, and Richard’s strong frame should be enough to secure himself a spot in Charlotte’s big man rotation next to Williams. He showed some great toughness against the Pacers, putting up a double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds. Richards even showed off some of his shot-blocking abilities, walking away with two impressive rejections.

Again, at this point in his career, Richards should be playing well in Summer League. That’s the bar. But considering how little he’s progressed thus far in the NBA, Friday night looked to be a great step in the right direction.

6. Smooth McGowens

Talk about a second-round draft pick. McGowens looked like a certified NBA player out there. He was easily Charlotte’s best player, and outside of Bennedict Mathurin (who was the sixth-overall pick in the draft), he was probably the best player on the court. His feel for the game and confidence were what fans should expect from five-year pros.

Sure, it’s only Summer League, but if McGowens can bring the smoothness he displayed on Friday night to the NBA, he won’t be on a two-way contract for long. Charlotte has some open roster spots, and McGowens looks more than deserving of one.

“Smooth McGowens” is the nickname I would like to officially enter into the record books. With no other standout point guard on the roster, McGowens took over most of the ball-handling duties, and he did so extremely well. His decision-making was far beyond what people likely expected from him, and his ability to squeak passes into small windows was amazing, too. McGowens could easily turn himself into one of the better pick-and-roll ball-handlers on Charlotte’s main roster.

Standing at 6’7, with great ball-handling, a reliable three-point shot, and a quiet confidence, McGowens is the name to watch on the Summer League Hornets. Not a name to watch, the name to watch.