As long as Kemba Walker was around, the Charlotte Hornets had an identity recognized around the NBA. But that’s over now. Walker is gone, wearing the green and white of the Boston Celtics. The inevitable transition, the one coming whenever the franchise’s leading scorer departed the premises, is now. And it is filled with unknowns. Who takes up the mantle he carried, through good and bad times? Is that player already on the roster? With no obvious answers, the 2019-20 season represents a voyage into the unknown for a Hornets franchise desperately seeking a new identity.
> 30 Teams in 30 Days: Charlotte Hornets
Walker’s replacement, Terry Rozier, was looking for an opportunity to start and run his own team after playing off the bench and becoming a fan favorite in Boston over the past four seasons … The Hornets nabbed high-energy Kentucky forward P.J. Washington with the No. 12 overall pick this June, continuing the franchise’s preference for talent from blue-blood college programs. But he missed summer league with a sore left foot and will probably spend more time prepping in the G-League early on this season to get acclimated to the pro game … Jeremy Lamb’s departure for Indiana in free agency means the Hornets don’t return anyone who averaged more than 10.1 points last season; veteran Nic Batum, the highest-paid player on the roster, averaged 9.3 last season … Michael Kidd-Gilchrist exercised his player option and returned to the Hornets for what is likely to be his final year with the franchise. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 Draft, he’s struggled with injury issues and has never developed an offensive skill-set to match his defensive prowess.
1. Bacon ready to shine. Dwayne Bacon’s strong finish last season (he averaged 12.6 points in 13 games as a starter) has positioned the 40th pick of the 2017 Draft to battle for a starting role. It’s a huge leap for a player who has a grand total of 19 NBA starts to his name. But he’s a sturdy, 6-foot-7, 220-pounder whose size should work to his advantage in certain matchups.And the truth is, the Hornets don’t have many options in that regard. But Bacon is eager to prove himself with an opportunity to move into the starting unit.
2. Zeller’s health status. Cody Zeller can barely remember what it’s like to play a full season. The 7-footer hasn't managed to stay healthy enough to finish an entire season in uniform since his rookie year, back in 2013-14. Injuries have played a painful part in limiting his role in recent seasons, including last season, when he missed the final 16 games of the season with knee soreness. Zeller has played in 82 games across the past two seasons, leaving the Hornets struggling to establish a consistent paint presence without him available.
3. Bridges is next up. Miles Bridges pulled no punches in his self-evaluation of his rookie season: He was disappointed that he didn’t make a bigger impact, didn’t play better and didn’t get a chance to show the full scope of what he could do in his first season after starring for two years at Michigan State. Bridges has all of the physical tools needed but still struggled with the transition to the next level, particularly on the defensive end. The 80 games of experience he has under his belt should show in his performance this season, now that he’s adjusted.
MAN ON THE SPOT
Terry Rozier is already tired of talking about and hearing about being the replacement for Kemba Walker. Too bad. It’s going to be a season-long storyline for the Hornets because of the shoes Rozier has to fill, both on and off the court. Walker wasn’t just the leader and face of the franchise, he was beloved by the fans and a fixture in the community from the moment he set foot in the Queen City. Rozier’s started just 30 games in his career and never had the sort of responsibility in Boston that he’ll be tasked with every night running the show for the Hornets. There won’t be anywhere to hide if he struggles in this new role.
Terry Rozier | 9.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.9 apg
Hornets need “Scary Terry” on a nightly basis as he takes over the controls for the first time as a starting point guard.
Dwayne Bacon | 7.3 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.1 apg
Showed off a nice scoring touch as a 13-game starter down the stretch last season.
Miles Bridges | 7.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 1.2 apg
The way he attacked the offseason has generated some internal buzz about this season being a liftoff point for a future star.
Marvin Williams | 10.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 1.2 apg
Leadership responsibilities go up tenfold now that Kemba Walker is no longer around.
Cody Zeller | 10.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.1 apg
Will assume a much larger role, provided he can play more than the 49 games he did last season.
Nic Batum | 9.3 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg
A solid summer with French national team might be the spark Batum needs to jump-start his season.
Malik Monk | 8.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.6 apg
One of several youngsters on this roster still trying to transform his body in order to handle the physical rigors at his position.
Bismack Biyombo | 4.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.8 bpg
Biyombo was supposed to provide a physical and shot-blocking presence for this team, but has come up woefully short.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Even with the Eastern Conference playoff chase wide open after the top two or three spots, this Hornets team is still quite a distance away from where James Borrego had hoped they would be in his second season as coach. And instead of leaning on his veteran All-Star point guard, he’ll have to go through whatever growing pains are sure to come with Rozier’s transition from a super-sub to starter. There are no delusions about what this team is capable of. Every positive step taken this season is about building for the future, whatever that might be.
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