Hornets relying on LaMelo Ball, young draft picks to emerge

Published 9:23 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2022


AP Sports Writer

CHARLOTTE — The Charlotte Hornets are relying on the continued growth of All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball and the development of a host of young draft picks to help them take the next step after losing in the play-in game the past two seasons.

The Hornets, who haven’t won a playoff series in more than two decades, didn’t add any veteran help via trade or free agency in the offseason to put around Ball, other than role player Dennis Smith Jr.

And, Miles Bridges’ uncertain NBA future has only complicated things.

Bridges, who is a restricted free agent, is facing three felony domestic violence charges and more than 11 years in prison if convicted. Bridges was the team’s leading scorer last season, averaging 20.2 points along with 7 rebounds and 3.8 assists.

“Guys are going to have to emerge,” said coach Steve Clifford, who is back for his second stint with the Hornets after owner Michael Jordan fired James Borrego in April.

“You know you’re going to need a comeback player of the year, someone that is All-Rookie team, someone who leads the league in rebounding that didn’t rebound last year. You always have that when you have good seasons,” Clifford added.

The Hornets expect P.J. Washington will fill Bridges’ spot in the starting lineup and play alongside Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Mason Plumlee. Kelly Oubre Jr. and Cody Martin have experience coming off the bench, but Charlotte is relatively young and untested beyond that.

Clifford is counting on guard James Bouknight, forwards Jalen McDaniels and J.T. Thor, and centers Nick Richards, Kai Jones and rookie Mark Williams to develop quickly and contribute.

Clifford said Bouknight, who spent most of his rookie season in Borrego’s doghouse, has “starter potential” — and his teammates tend to agree.

“Bouk’s definitely got talent,” Ball said. “Just seeing what you can do, the gaps, just reading the whole NBA game, so as soon as he gets that I think he’ll be straight.”


Clifford loves Ball’s game, but said he wants to see the 21-year-old get to the foul line more.

Ball only attempted 3.2 free throws per game last season, and Clifford wants to see that number double. The 6-foot-7 Ball has been working overtime with coaches and a former NBA referee on how to create contact and draw more fouls.

“To be honest, if he can attempt three more free throws per game that would be a game-changer for him and for our team,” Clifford said. “He is a good range shooter, his pull-up numbers are not extraordinary, but they are good enough to win. He doesn’t turn the ball over a lot for a guy who has such large usage.”


It seems to be a recurring theme this time of the year, but keeping Hayward healthy is vital for the Hornets.

The 12-year NBA veteran has struggled to stay on the court since his arrival in Charlotte, limited to just 93 games over the past two seasons after signing a four-year, $120 million contract in 2020. Clifford said the team will have a week-to-week plan when it comes to resting him.

“He’s definitely not going to play 82 games — that wouldn’t be smart,” Clifford said. “But I think that a lot of it is him being honest about the way he feels. He badly wants to be on the floor.”


Plumlee is currently dealing with a foot injury but is projected as the team’s starting center despite the veteran switching to a left-handed jump shot.

Richards, a former second round pick, is in line to be the back-up and has earned praise from Clifford for his work all summer. The 7-foot-2 Williams, a first-round pick this year from Duke, will also vie for playing time.

“It means the world to me knowing my teammates believe in me, mostly because I’ve shown that I believe in myself,” Richards said.

Said Clifford: “He’s given himself a chance to make progress here because he knows who he is and he plays to his strengths. He can run, he’s physical, he’s a good screener and he’s a good roller.”


The Hornets have struggled so far in the preseason in transition defense, something that Clifford was brought in to fix. On several occasions opponents have turned easy makes or misses by the Hornets into easy baskets at the other end. Fixing that is Clifford’s top priority.


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