|Youngest Hornets lay the groundwork for franchise's future|
|With Walker as mentor, fresh faces blend in|
|Published Thursday, April 11, 2019 6:25 pm|
|PHOTO | TROY HULL|
|Rookie guard Devonte Graham became a regular fixture in the Hornets' rotation as the season wound down.|
The kids did all right.
The Charlotte Hornets (39-43) relied heavily on four first and second-year players to take their playoff push to the final game. First-year head coach James Borrego was not afraid to change the rotation based on personnel or injury. Rookie forward Miles Bridges and second-year swingman Dwayne Bacon made their way into the starting lineup near the end, while second-year guard Malik Monk and rookie guard Devonte Graham saw frequent minutes with the second unit.
“This year, you could be on the court with anybody,” said veteran forward Marvin Williams, who finished the season injured with a right foot strain. “That’s one of the strengths of our team … I don’t think we make that run without those guys.”
Said Bridges: “It was a struggle at first, trying to find minutes, but coach believed in me, and they believed in me too. If I didn’t have those teammates, I wouldn’t have been as successful at the end of the season as I was.”
Bridges made his first NBA start on Feb. 22, and remained there for the rest of the season, finishing with 25 starts in 80 games played. He averaged 7.5 points per game, with career-highs of 20 points, 12 boards and five assists.
Bacon, by comparison, spent most of the season in the G-League. However, on March 8 he made his 26th appearance, and would play in each remaining game. He made his first start on March 11, and became a fixture in the starting rotation March 21 onward with 13 starts in 43 games. Bacon scored an average 7.3 points per game, and a career-high 24 points.
“We push each other,” Bridges said. “If we don’t see somebody in the gym, we’ll text them and be like, ‘hey, come to the gym. Get some shots up for me. We’re just holding each other accountable. I feel like that’s why we got better throughout the season.”
The group bonded on and off the court, a byproduct of three-time All-Star point guard Kemba Walker inviting them over to his house for dinner. Their relationship took off from there and Bacon noted the group calls themselves “Kemba and the Avengers.”
“It starts off the court,” Bacon said. “We do a lot of things together. Me, Miles and Malik—it’s like we’re always around each other. Me and [Graham] live literally a house down. We walk to each other’s houses. When you’re around someone so much, you just start to catch onto what the person does, or how they act. It’s never negative energy when we’re with each other. I feel like it transfers to the court.”
Said Walker: “It’s been fun playing with those guys towards the end of the year. They got better throughout the course of the season, especially Dwayne. He didn’t play much, but he never complained, he always cheered for his teammates, always got his work in and when his name was called he stepped up huge. Miles, of course being a rookie, a lot of ups and downs but towards the end he figured it out and got better, same with Devonte. Devonte put in his work and continuing to get better each and every day, as well as Malik and Frank [Kaminsky]. Those guys stepped up so big. It felt good to be able to lead those guys and help them out throughout the rest of the season.”
Walker, who set the franchise-record with 60 points in a game, averaged 25.6 points per game and shot 35.6 percent from three-point range, enters free agency for the first time in his career. His departure would drastically change the makeup of the team and also potentially expand the role of Monk and/or Graham. Graham, who started three games in 46 appearances, averaged 4.9 points per game. When Charlotte signed Tony Parker, Graham knew a bit of his rookie season would take place in the G-League with the Greensboro Swarm.
“You have to give the Greensboro staff a lot of credit,” Borrego said. “That stuff doesn’t just happen.”
Borrego, who replaced Steve Clifford last summer, noted how player development impacted their ability to make a run at the playoffs.
“When they hired me in this position, one of the things I believed in was the Greensboro operation—that we use the G-League,” Borrego said. “One of the things for player development is using the G-League.
“When you saw those players come back from Greensboro, they were completely different players. Their confidence was sky-high. There’s nothing like live reps.”
While the roster for summer league is not set, he does believe including Graham, Monk and Bridges in it could only benefit them.
While Monk played both guard positions in the NBA, he considers himself a point guard by trade. Monk appeared in 73 games, averaging 8.9 points per game, with a season-high of 26 points, six boards and six assists. He expects to put on 10 pounds during the offseason, making him the Hulk of the young Avengers.
“Well, I am not a strength coach, but what I can say is that we need more bulk on him,” Borrego said. “I think he is committed to it. There is a plan in place this summer for him to get stronger, get bigger and he has to participate in that. It is going to take a lot of work but he is capable of doing that. If he puts the work in, he can change his body.”
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