LaMelo Ball’s next step, Gordon Hayward’s health among five keys to Hornets’ playoff hopes in 2021-22 season

The Charlotte Hornets ended the 2020-21 NBA season with a bitter style of their mouth — a 144-117 beating by the hands of the Indiana Pacers within the Jap Convention’s 9-10 play-in recreation. At Media Day on Monday, most of the Charlotte gamers talked about that defeat motivating their offseason exercises as they enter the brand new season with a transparent expectation of creating the playoffs. 

“No extra being one foot within the door,” mentioned Terry Rozier, who added that something in need of a postseason berth could be “an absolute fail” for a Charlotte group that’s certainly gifted however can also be up in opposition to a a lot deeper Jap Convention than we have seen in recent times. 

This is a take a look at Charlotte’s roster together with 5 keys to its 2021-22 season.

Charlotte Hornets roster

Guards: LaMelo Ball, James Bouknight, D.J. Carton, Scottie Lewis, Kelly Oubre Jr., Terry Rozier, Ish Smith

Forwards: Miles Bridges, Gordon Hayward, Wes Iwundu, Arnoldas Kulboka, Cody Martin, Jalen McDaniels, Xavier Sneed, JT Thor, P.J. Washington

Facilities: Vernon Carey Jr., Kai Jones, Mason Plumlee, Nick Richards

1. Lamelo Ball’s subsequent step

Ball was superb total and electrical over a six-week stretch en path to profitable the 2020-21 Rookie of the Yr. From the beginning of February, when he was inserted into the beginning lineup, by late March when he went out with a damaged wrist, Ball averaged slightly below 20 factors per recreation to go along with 6.2 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 1.7 steals on 46 % capturing, together with 42.6 % from 3. 

That didn’t really feel like an outlier stretch. It felt nearly inevitable as you watched the development of Ball’s recreation and season. Even when he was simply getting his NBA ft moist, it was clear how simply the sport involves him. The three-point capturing was higher than anticipated from the beginning, and when it turned the nook into changing into a legit energy, Ball’s presence as a dual-threat level guard went to the subsequent degree because the Hornets discovered themselves in sincere vary of a top-four seed pretty deep into the marketing campaign. 

If Charlotte goes to take one of the best of what it confirmed final season and make that its constant degree, Ball has to take one other step within the path of solidifying himself as an All-Star-level participant. 

What does that imply? Hold the capturing up, minimize down on turnovers and get to the free-throw line extra. Ball placed on a noticeable quantity of muscle over the summer season, and that ought to assist him end with extra consistency on the rim (His 54 % rim clip final season, per Cleansing the Glass, registered him within the twenty seventh percentile amongst gamers at his place). 

LaMelo, like his brother Lonzo Ball, might actually use an in-between recreation as properly; floaters, runners, pull-ups within the lane, and many others. He exhibits flashes of a wide range of pictures. Folks prefer to loosely describe LaMelo as a 6-foot-8 Trae Young, however that is a great distance off at current; till Ball finds an elite floater recreation and works his method to the road like Younger does, there is no comparability. 

Defensively, Ball was additionally higher than his draft skeptics warned. He impacted lots of possessions, however not in a very disciplined method. Total, he is nonetheless not a very good defender. He leaves his man chasing large performs, of which he would not land sufficient to warrant the wandering. However the instincts and measurement are there. 

Finally, whereas Gordon Hayward would possibly nonetheless be Charlotte’s finest participant, that is LaMelo’s group. He is clearly younger and uncooked, and all of us must watch out in regards to the expectations we place on a second-year 20-year-old. However there is no denying the products are there for Ball, and maybe by extension the Hornets. 

2. Gordon Hayward’s well being

Cheap minds can argue about whether or not a wholesome Hayward stays Charlotte’s finest participant, however the one phrase that basically issues in that sentence is wholesome. Hayward, who missed 28 video games final season, has to remain on the ground constantly and function at or close to an All-Star degree for the Hornets to have any actual shot at cracking the postseason. 

There’s optimism on this entrance, as Hayward went into this offseason wholesome. The final time Hayward loved an injury-free offseason, throughout which he might merely work on his recreation and get his physique and thoughts proper absent any form of rehab, was 2016, and he wound up making the All-Star group the next yr. 

Hayward was spectacular at occasions final season. He wound up averaging slightly below 20 factors per recreation on higher than 41 % 3-point capturing, per CTG. Regardless of that borderline elite conversion fee, Hayward tried fewer than 5 3-pointers per recreation final season (simply 29 % of his total makes an attempt, putting him within the sixteenth percentile amongst wings); I believe we might see a big uptick in Hayward’s 3-point makes an attempt this season as he maybe sticks extra to a perimeter-based recreation in an effort to remain wholesome. 

3. Terry Rozier’s continued effectivity

When Rozier got here to Charlotte by way of a sign-and-trade with Boston in the summertime of 2019, he was broadly considered a extremely overpaid comfort prize for the Hornets dropping Kemba Walker. He promptly outplayed that contract. Rozier was Charlotte’s most constant participant final season from begin to end, and now he has a four-year, $97 million contract extension to indicate for it. 

As soon as once more, persons are questioning whether or not Rozier is well worth the cash he is getting paid. There’s context to the deal. The 2022 free agent class is comparatively skinny, and the Hornets aren’t a group that is going to lure a giant fish anyway; they must develop from inside, even when it means a slight overpay right here or there. 

Rozier averaged profession highs in factors, assists, steals and efficient field-goal share final season. Like Ball, nevertheless, Rozier would not do a lot injury on the rim and he infrequently will get to the road (it is a actual drawback for the Hornets, who registered twenty fourth league-wide in free-throw makes an attempt per recreation final season and nonetheless lack a man who can draw fouls within the submit or constantly create downhill leverage). 

Nonetheless, Rozier is a 20-point scorer who related on 39 % of his 8.3 3-pointers per recreation. It is laborious for me to see Rozier taking a giant leap off final season, however can he keep that degree as an environment friendly scorer? That query will go a great distance in how the Hornets’ season shakes out. 

4. Middle(s) of consideration

Cody Zeller is out, and Mason Plumlee is in. Plumlee will probably begin as Charlotte’s middle, however Miles Bridges and P.J. Washington enjoying collectively in a small-ball unit is a way more intriguing lineup, notably as a closing 5. Washington began 61 video games final season as the ability ahead, however my guess is Bridges, who broke out as a 20-point scorer over the 19 video games he began largely over the ultimate month of the season, replaces Washington within the beginning lineup. 

However once more, it is about how Charlotte finishes. To maintain their tempo excessive and be as versatile as attainable defensively, Washington and Bridges have to see time because the frontcourt. Final season, Bridges performed so properly as a starter that Washington was moved to middle when he got here again from a short ankle harm, and the returns on these two enjoying collectively as a small-ball frontcourt had been optimistic, if comparatively small in pattern. 

The Hornets had been plus-5.9 factors per 100 possessions with Washington and Bridges on the court docket along with a 118.2 offensive ranking final season. With the five-man lineup of Ball, Rozier, Hayward, Bridges and Washington, which might be the probably closing unit, Charlotte was plus-4.7 factors per 100 possessions, per CTG. 

Once more, Plumlee probably begins as Charlotte would not need to play that small for that lengthy, and the backup middle state of affairs is skinny, which means the minutes for Washington and Bridges must be saved in examine. However how these two fare collectively, whether or not for stretches of video games or as a closing frontcourt, will probably be a giant a part of Charlotte’s equation. 

5. Defensive enchancment

Charlotte was a bottom-10 defensive group final season due largely to its surrendering 14.5 3-point makes per recreation, the second worst mark within the league; the Hornets allowed opponents to jack up slightly below 40 3-point makes an attempt per recreation, the very best mark within the league, per CTG. They don’t seem to be a very good perimeter defensive group. Ball scrambles and gambles however he doesn’t include penetration or rotate with any form of consistency, and he is on the head of most assaults. 

Charlotte introduced in Kelly Oubre Jr., who has a popularity as a very good defender however actually is not all that nice. He makes athletic performs, however can also be an undisciplined gambler. If Charlotte goes to enhance defensively, will probably be as a result of Ball takes strides, Oubre stays midway disciplined, Hayward stays wholesome and plugs holes, Rozier is a pest on the ball, and the aforementioned Washington/Bridges small-ball combo is ready to trigger havoc in spurts. 

I personally do not see a ton of defensive upside for the Hornets, who lack even one top-shelf defender and haven’t got sufficient collective expertise and/or self-discipline to succeed as sum-is-greater-than-their-parts unit. But when Charlotte can simply make a little bit of progress, maybe into the highest half of the league, its tempo, passing and capturing could possibly be sufficient to be a playoff group. | LaMelo Ball’s subsequent step, Gordon Hayward’s well being amongst 5 keys to Hornets’ playoff hopes in 2021-22 season


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