(Written By David W. Walters)
Well now that the exhibition season is over and the regular season opener is only days away, let’s take a look at what we can expect from this years new look Charlotte Hornets based on what we’ve seen so far.
The Hornets brought in a few new players during the offseason that are sure to make a significant impact on how the season goes. The Hornets got a steal when they landed Lance Stephenson, one of the better two-way guards in the league, after they struck out on Gordon Hayward. His all-around play and tenacious defense could help bolster the backcourt for years to come as long as his contributions outweigh his off-court antics.
Stephenson missed a few games in the exhibition season so we only got to see a small sample of what the team looks like with him on the court. He was given freedom to handle the ball as the Hornets experimented with their new backcourt tandem and, at times, he showed flashes of what he can bring to the table. His playmaking ability will help to make up for the role departed forward Josh McRoberts played last season.
Speaking of McRoberts, the Hornets signed Marvin Williams away to occupy the stretch four spot in their starting lineup. Williams has also struggled to fit in at times but seemed more at ease as the preseason wore on. While he lacks the court vision of McRoberts, he helps stretch the floor for Jefferson, and he brings a suitable skill set to help out the team in other areas.
Brian Roberts had somewhat of a breakout season last year for the New Orleans Pelicans as he filled in as a part time starter. Roberts is a steady hand and will make his contributions off the bench with his playmaking and three point range; he averaged 9.4 and 3.3 assists last season while leading the league in free throw percentage and shooting 37% from beyond the arc. Roberts got more acclimated to his team as the preseason moved along and it seems like the Hornets have landed a strong backup option to spell minutes for Walker.
One of the overlooked acquisitions the Hornets made came at the beginning of training camp when Charlotte signed journeyman center/forward Jason Maxiell to bolster their frontcourt. Maxiell has averaged 5.9 points and 4.3 rebounds over his career and, although his best years are behind him, he will provide a veteran presence and another big body to help the young Hornets this season.
The Hornets brought in two talented rookies in Noah Vonleh and P.J. Hairston. We only saw a small glimpse of Vonleh in action this preseason, and it came in the form of four points, four rebounds and two steals in 19 minutes of work against the Atlanta Hawks. Vonleh had surgery to correct a sports hernia injury and coach Clifford has said that he will slowly work the rookie back into the rotation.
We’ve gotten a much better look at Hairston, the rookie drafted out of the NBDL.
Hairston has been solid all preseason, and has gotten a glut of minutes while Henderson has been sidelined. He has provided steady scoring off the bench while also shooting a very respectable 42% from long range. Hairston can provide instant offense of the bench with his scoring ability and it showed as the preseason wore on and as he settled in to the Hornets system. Hairston averaged 21.8 points per game playing for the Texas Legends last season and that kind of experience can only help his adjustment to the speed of an NBA game. I feel like Vonleh has a higher ceiling and the most potential out of the two, but Hairston is probably more poised to be a contributor this season than his rookie counterpart.
Big Al’s Foot
Al Jefferson’s signing before last year was laughable in some NBA circles, with the feeling being that he doesn’t really do anything to move the needle for a team that was one of the leagues worst the previous year. Quite the opposite was true, actually, as the Mississippi Monster was the focal point of a surprising team that made the playoffs. Unfortunately, just minutes into the first game of the series against the Heat, Jefferson suffered plantar fasciitis that made him ineffective for the remainder of the series and ultimately spelling the end of their postseason run.
This type of injury only gets better with rest and time and, thankfully, Jefferson has come into this preseason with no lingering effects. That’s great news for the Hornets, as Jefferson really hit his stride after the All-Star break, ending up as a third-team All-NBA selection. Hopefully he can stay healthy and build off last seasons strong showing as he continues to be an integral part of this team going forward.
MKG’s Jump Shot
Much was made this offseason about the work that Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and assistant coach Mark Price had put into MKG’s jump shot. Last season, teams would back off and dare the second year forward to shoot away. Kidd-Gilchrist’s confidence in his shot was at an all time low and it showed in his hesitation on the offensive side of the ball. While he is unquestionably the teams best wing defender, often garnering the assignment on the opponents top offensive threat, he has been a non-factor on the other end of the court, leaving some to question whether he’ll ever be enough of a two-way threat to have a lasting NBA career.
MGK and Price completely broke down his jump shot and rebuilt it from scratch, as the awkward hitch in his shot only got worse as he worked on it during last season. Early on during training camp, a video surfaced showing off MKG’s new shooting stroke, and it was night and day. While it hasn’t necessarily translated to a glut of scoring for Kidd-Gilchrist, it has obviously restored his confidence on the offensive end of the court, and it seems that confidence is helping him with other parts of his game. He has been more aggressive this season going to the rim and drawing contact but, more importantly, he has been able to convert a good percentage of his free throws. At times you can see the weird hitch try to break through, but this preseason, we’ve seen him shoot fadeaways over multiple defenders and we’ve seen him put up 15! shots in one game (albeit he only hit five of them). This will be an important year for the third-year forward as the Hornets will be evaluating whether or not he can be the long-term solution at small forward.
Gerald Henderson the Sixth Man?
After the Hornets signed Stephenson away from the Pacers it was assumed that Gerald Henderson, one of the teams captains the past few seasons, was destined to a role as the teams sixth man. I was interested to see how this would work out, I had always thought that Hendo’s game was well suited for a sixth man type of role; his leadership would be key on a reserve unit, his defense and athleticism would give him a primary role as the top player off the bench and he can add a scoring punch on a second string that will be in need of points.
Unfortunately, due to a hamstring injury, we weren’t able to get a look at how he fits in on the second unit, so we’ll see how he works his way into the rotation as the season progresses, but I really think that he still plays an important part if he is able to settle into his new role.
Other Role Players
The depth of this Hornets team is much improved, but it will take the contributions of other role players for this year’s team to be successful. Cody Zeller, a second-year forward from Indiana, had a rough season last year as he struggled to adjust to the NBA game. Zeller looked much improved in the summer league, as his shooting and aggressiveness improved and it seems he is more confident in his ability this season. Coach Clifford has stated that Zeller will see minutes as the team’s backup center this season so we will see how he holds up against the competition. The Hornets will look for more consistency out of Zeller this season; his preseason had its moments, in particular an 18-point, eight rebound and five assists outing against the Hawks last week.
Gary Neal enters his first full season in Charlotte and his scoring touch will be needed off the bench for the Hornets. After spending the summer getting slimmer and quicker, Neal led the Hornets in scoring in almost half the team’s exhibitions this preseason. His offseason work also showed up in other parts of his game as he was more effective as both a playmaker and as a rebounder, look for Clifford to find ways to use his ability this season despite the glut of players at the wing position.
And then there’s Bismack Biyombo, who was drafted largely based on his athleticism and potential. While he has made strides in becoming a more efficient player in his brief career, he has yet to expand his game to the point where his defensive effectiveness outweighs his limitations on offense. Not to say he hasn’t improved on that side of the ball but when he is on the floor, Charlotte is basically playing four on five. This will be a huge season for Biyombo’s career, one that will ultimately not only decide his future with the Hornets, but also the future of his NBA career going forward as his rookie contract ends after this year. I loved this guy during his rookie season, his youthful exuberance and excitement for the game was unmatched, and the kid soaks up coaching like a sponge. Here’s hoping that he develops this season to the point where he can be a meaningful contributor going forward.
Predictions For the 2014-15 Season
Last season went much better than expected for Charlotte as they went 43-39 and snatched a playoff berth. Hopefully the Hornets can build on last season’s success, but whether or not that happens hinges largely on how this team gels together as a third of this roster is new to the team. With the free agent addition of Stephenson, the Hornets boast one of the most exciting backcourts in the league. The depth on the team is much improved and it will be interesting to see how head coach Steve Clifford sorts out his rotations as the season progresses.
If all goes well, and the newcomers mesh with the incumbents, then the Hornets are most certainly looking at another playoff berth this season. The southeast division is up for grabs now that LeBron has left Miami and, while the talent is spread out amongst the division rivals, Charlotte has as good a chance as any team to make noise and come out on top.
However things end up this year, it will surely be an exciting season for the Charlotte Hornets and their fans. The team has really put a lot of effort into planning for the opening week of games at Time Warner Cable Arena, complete with commemorative tickets and tuxedo shirt giveaways; a throwback to opening night in 1988 when fans dressed to the nines. After careful consideration (particularly about the ticket prices), I decided that it was an event that I simply could not miss. It’s a historic night for the franchise and being there and hearing the buzz in person is the only way to go.
On Saturday night, the Hornets will once again raise Bobby Phills’ #13 jersey to the rafters in a retirement ceremony. Phills played for the Hornets for three years before tragically losing his life in a car accident near the old Charlotte Coliseum. Phills was a fan favorite in his short time here, and raising his #13 to the rafters is a very classy move by the organization to honor him and the history of the Hornets.
The Buzz is Back!
But enough talk already, lets get onto the season and see for ourselves what we have in our 2014-15 version of the Charlotte Hornets. It’s been a long time coming but the Buzz is Back! Stay tuned to Bring Back the Buzz for all your Hornets needs during the season and KEEP BUZZING!!!
you can follow David W. Walters on Twitter @Original_DWade.
Photo credit: (NBAE/Getty Images)