Patience Meets Opportunity for Rookie Malik Monk

By Sam Perley

The recent news of Michael Carter-Williams’ season-ending shoulder surgery has officially closed the door on his 2017-18 campaign. But when one door closes in the NBA, another one generally opens, and this time, it’s for Hornets rookie guard Malik Monk.

Taken 11th overall in last year’s NBA Draft, Monk was viewed as a highly-explosive, raw, athletic talent known for scoring in bunches during his lone season at Kentucky. Having suffered an ankle injury in a predraft workout though, he was forced to sit out Summer League and limited physically for much of the rest of the summer.

Carter-Williams also missed the start of the season after undergoing a knee procedure in August, allowing Monk to begin his rookie year in the Hornets rotation. He showcased electrifying flashes at times, but much like many first-year players, he struggled with consistency, shot selection and learning NBA-caliber defense.

 Monk ended up spending a large amount of time on the bench this season, seeing minutes primarily in emergencies and garbage time. Since being bumped into the backup point guard role on March 6, he’s averaging 7.3 points on 36.4 percent shooting, 2.0 assists and 0.8 turnovers across 15.6 minutes in four outings. It’s a small sample size, but noticeable progression that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his teammates.

“He looks a lot more comfortable,” said Kemba Walker following the team’s home loss to Brooklyn on March 8. “He just learned from a lot of the mistakes he made earlier in the year and you can see he’s out there playing well, passing the ball well, shooting the basketball. Not every shot goes in, but he’s taking great shots. His shot selection has been really good.”

“I’m just learning every day,” Monk says. “Whether I’m playing or I’m not playing, I’m just learning every day. Trying to learn from Kemba and all the great guards here. I think [my game] is pretty decent right now. It could be better, but I’m just learning.”

 Another obstacle Monk has had to overcome is learning to play point guard at the NBA level, a position he hasn’t taken on fulltime since high school. He generally played off the ball in college while De’Aaron Fox (now with the Sacramento Kings) headed the Wildcats’ more open-court-based offense.

The position switch and subsequent adjustment isn’t an excuse according to Monk, who is conscious of the way the NBA landscape has been transitioning in recent years.

“It’s pretty simple. You got to be a basketball player. You can’t just be one position in the league now. You got to play multiple positions,” he says.

 “I know he can do it,” said Head Coach Steve Clifford. “He has a lot of NBA point guard skills because he can play the pick and roll, which is a big part of it. [He’s working on] the organizational aspect and then still playing to his strengths. He’s a very good passer. He can put a lot of pressure on the defense. I think it’s just trying to clarify that position for him a lot better than I did early in the year because he’s also very bright.”

“He can put the ball in the basket in a variety of ways,” Fox said back in January. “At practice all the time, we played one-on-one. All of our guards at Kentucky – me, him, Isaiah Briscoe, Mychal Mulder, Dominique Hawkins – we all just went at each other.”

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“He’s just a down-to-earth dude,” said former Kentucky teammate, Bam Adebayo, now a member of the Miami Heat. “Real down to earth, but when it comes to going in between them lines, he’s a dude I’d go in the foxhole with.”

Clifford also mentioned in the past that Jeremy Lamb’s breakout year (who also had a relatively slow start to his NBA career in Oklahoma City) has made it harder to find minutes for the rookie. That’s largely a testament to the improvements Lamb made in the offseason, rather than the ones Monk hasn’t yet so far.

“He’s definitely talented. He just hasn’t had as much of an opportunity as he probably would like right now,” says Lamb, who was drafted 12th overall in 2012. “That’s the same position I was in. Playing behind good players, I just tried to learn from them and keep working on my game until I got that opportunity later. He’s in a great position. He just has to keep working. The sky’s the limit for him.”

Rookie-year success isn’t a reliable barometer for one’s overall career trajectory. There have been a handful of NBA rookies who have burst onto the scene and taken the league by storm as soon as they stepped foot on the court. Contrarily, there have been others that have taken longer to adjust for whatever reason and still gone on to become great players. Ultimately, everybody’s path is different.

 The transition from college to the professional ranks simply takes time, which is something the now 20-year-old Arkansas native has plenty of at his disposal. Monk’s rookie season hasn’t unfolded necessarily as he or Hornets fans might have expected, but you wouldn’t know it by his unwavering confidence and daily demeanor.

“I’m a basketball player, I don’t get nervous. I’ve been waiting to play my whole life, so I’m ready. I’m ready to play whenever they throw me out there and I’m going to try to do my best every time.”