The best teams in the NBA experience the most sustained success because they continue to get better as the season transpires, year after year after year. This ongoing improvement isn’t confined to just younger players with seemingly the most room to grow though, but comes from everybody on the roster regardless of age, experience or skillset.
In the two-and-a-half years since President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak and Head Coach James Borrego took the reins of the Charlotte Hornets organization, internal development has and continues to be the top priority. It’s certainly hard to disagree with that notion, particularly after witnessing so many players performing their best under this umbrella.
“[Development] is our bread and butter,” said Borrego. “Our job here and my focus when I took this job was on internal development and I’m fairly pleased. Everybody in our program for the most part has gotten better. We’ve had career years going back to Kemba Walker, Jeremy Lamb [in 2018-19] and all the guys last year. Every draft pick that we’ve brought in here has gotten better every single year. It’s our lifeblood and I’m proud of it.”
He added, “It’s not by accident. We work at it. It’s a credit to our guys that they’re invested in it, they trust it. They trust the G League process as well. Our staff does as good a job as anybody preparing these guys, working with them every single day. Our assistant coaches are a big part of this. It’s a combination of everybody and more than anything, it’s our culture. It’s what we do and what we’re about. We’re about development as coaches, as players, as an organization. To me, that’s what defines success.”
Younger players normally have more room to grow physically and mentally upon entering the NBA, although improvement doesn’t natural transpire with experience. Likewise, development isn’t accelerated by just dumping heavy minutes on rookies and hoping for the best. A major part of the process is determining the proper role for a player and then inserting that player into said role in order to maximize individual and team success. Lastly and perhaps most importantly, that player needs to fully embrace the designated role as well.
Amongst the team veterans, look no further than 2017 NBA All-Star Gordon Hayward (22.3 points) and Terry Rozier (20.6), who are both averaging career highs in scoring, while shooting the best they ever have from three-point range (42.2% and 44.5%, respectively). Centers Cody Zeller (11.1) and Bismack Biyombo (7.4) posted the highest scoring marks of their careers last year and are now each putting up personal highs in assists this season (2.5 and 1.3).
Devonte’ Graham thrust himself into the league’s Most Improved Player conversation as an NBA sophomore in 2019-20 (4.7 to 18.2 points per game) following a heavy dose of G League reps as a rookie. Now playing more off the ball this season in conjunction with the additions of Hayward and rookie LaMelo Ball, Graham has seen his scoring average expectedly dip, although has a positive net rating for the first time as an NBA player (team-leading 4.0 points per 100 possessions) and is posting a career-high 4.06 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Another player who’s made a jump this season has been Miles Bridges. A former lottery pick who started 25 games as a rookie and then all of last year at the three, Bridges has moved back to a reserve role as a small-ball four, where he’s spent 94% of his on-court minutes this season. Bridges is currently shooting personal bests from the field (47%), three (36%) and free-throw line (94%), while also averaging more rebounds (5.8), assists (1.9) and blocks (0.8) than he had in either of his first two seasons.
And after an up-and-down three years in Charlotte, 23-year-old Malik Monk has blossomed into a more-microwave-like scorer off the bench, leading to an efficient and career-high clip of 10.5 points across 15 appearances this season. Monk shot a combined 40% and 32% from the field and deep, respectively, from 2017-20, but is now converting 45% of his attempts and ranks an impressive second in the NBA in three-point percentage (50.0%) amongst qualified players.
One of the most challenging balancing acts for any NBA head coach is juggling player development with wins and losses. Everybody knows and recognizes it’s a results-driven business, although the two elements are more intertwined at times than meets the eye.
“I’ll always stay committed to development because that’s how you grow and that’s how you get better,” stated Borrego. “The performance will take care of itself I believe long term if you stay focused on the development and getting better. That’s any organization. Results and performance are important, but what gets you there ultimately is internal growth. Over the course of this season and into next season, the performance will take care of itself if we focus on our development and our commitment to getting better every single day.”
He added, “At the end of the day, you have to win games and part of that buy-in for your young players is performing and winning games. If we’re winning and performing, well guess what? My guys buy in more to the development program and getting better every single day. That does help. These two things go together for me, but at the core of it is development and that’s our focus every single day.”
Another major element of the developmental process is learning how to win, particularly close games. In Borrego’s first season, the Hornets finished 20th in the NBA in clutch-time win percentage (.462; 18-21), a measurement of wins and losses when the score is within five points with five-or-fewer minutes remaining. The team vaulted up to 13th in this category last season (.500; 17-17) and now sits seventh through Feb. 14 (.615; 8-5).
The 2020-21 NBA campaign has certainly been unpredictable and already unlike any other in recent memory. But one thing that remains constant is the commitment by the Charlotte Hornets to internal growth and player development and the results slowly, but surely and steadily are speaking for themselves.