One of the most frequent challenges for NBA rookies is figuring out how to impact the game – sometimes with limited minutes – when they don’t have the ball as much or aren’t getting as many shots as they did in college or even the G League.
Amidst a similar role adjustment, Hornets’ first-year combo wing Bryce McGowens is making the most of his opportunity right now, which has led to an increase in minutes and his first career NBA start on Jan. 24 in Phoenix. Injuries to Cody Martin and Kelly Oubre Jr. have no doubt opened the door, but McGowens is the one who has taken the next step and walked through it.
“It felt good having my first career NBA start,” said McGowens, when asked about his milestone night. “We didn’t come out with the win like we wanted to, but it was an amazing experience and a big step in my career. I’m proud of myself and thank the coaches for having trust to put me in that position. It’s a blessing, I’m glad to be here and just going to continue to work.”
McGowens’ seasonal averages – 3.6 points on 36.5% shooting, 34.6% from 3-point range, 1.6 rebounds and 1.0 assist over 13.8 minutes in 22 appearances – don’t jump off the page, but his play has really caught Steve Clifford’s attention. According to the Hornets Head Coach, one of McGowens’ better performances came in the team’s 130-118 home loss to Boston on MLK Day, in which the 20-year-old had a missed shot, three rebounds and a foul in 12-and-a-half minutes.
“Against Boston the other day, he was really good, you know?” said Clifford, prior to the team’s game in Houston on Jan. 18. “Forget scoring – he played not just okay, like really, really well. It was impressive to watch. I watched film with him yesterday and showed him. He did so many good things. Bryce’s strength to me is his offense. His instincts, his ability to play both in transition and the half-court, he has very good IQ, good size. He’s diligent and has a good approach.”
Most of these good things might not show up in the box score, but as Clifford mentions, there were some really impressive sequences from McGowens against one of the NBA’s top offensive units. Throughout the contest, McGowens does an excellent job of attaching himself to Malcolm Brogdon’s hip on defense and doesn’t allow him to easily turn the corner and get to the basket. His switches and footwork are really fluid, he recovers well on screens, maximizes his length to contest opposing shots and on offense, is constantly moving off the ball.
Explained Clifford, “What happens is I think for a lot of guys, the adjustment is you go from college where you have the ball all the time and now you get here, and you’re the third, fourth or fifth option. So, then it’s the other things that really determine your value to the group. The whole role definition thing changes a little bit and that’s hard, too.”
“The main thing they really stress is defense,” said McGowens. “Just trying to stay locked in on that aspect of the ball, knowing when to be aggressive on offense. Getting up and down, making quick decisions, help communication on defense. Really just playing the right way. I feel like that helps with everything offensively, defensively. I feel like the coaches put me out there because I play the right way. To be on the floor, that’s what I have to do. Coming in and doing that every day, I can hold my hat on that. I feel like that’s what’s gotten me on the floor.”
McGowens has become another in a long line of Hornet players that have fine-tuned their skills in Greensboro over the past few seasons. Across seven G League outings, the former University of Nebraska Cornhusker is averaging 25.1 points on 46.5% shooting, 4.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.6 steals. His strongest showing with the Swarm featured a season-high 37 points on 13-of-18 shooting, four 3-pointers, two assists and two steals against Capital City on Dec. 31.
“He’s crushing the G League,” added Clifford. “He’s not just playing well. Of all the guys that have gone down there, he’s been the one that if you watch him play, he’s been like, terrific. He’s a scorer and he’ll score in this league, too.” Added McGowens, “The G League has helped me get reps and keep my conditioning and cardio up. The coaches down there are also great. We do the same things on both teams, so just listening and applying up here.”
Following the Phoenix game, both LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward returned from injury in the team’s 111-96 home victory over Chicago on Thursday night, pushing McGowens out of the rotation for the time being. More opportunities will most definitely come about in the future and until then, McGowens will do what he does best and continue to listen, study and grow.
“Everything is a learning experience,” he said. “I could have played better in the Phoenix game, could have played better in the Utah game [on Monday]. Of course, I want more minutes, but I have to take it step by step and learn from my mistakes. I’m just trying to get better personally. I definitely want to be on the floor so I have to do everything to make sure that I am.”