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What the Charlotte Hornets Need Following the All-Star Break

Wearing a teal Charlotte Hornets jersey, LaMelo Ball extends himself while leaping toward the basket, holding the ball above his head and surrounded by three Spurs players.
LaMelo Ball in the paint during a game against the San Antonio Spurs leading into the All-Star Break. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hornets via Getty)

As the NBA All-Star Break comes to a close, with festivities in Utah all sewn up and the Charlotte Hornets ready to pick things up in Minnesota on Friday night, it’s a good time to reflect on the current state of things inside the Spectrum Center (last weekend’s Adam Sandler notwithstanding). 

LaMelo Ball got to enjoy the weeklong break — a relief to pedestrians and fellow drivers in Uptown — as he did not play in this year’s All-Star Game, but for the Hornets to rise in the East, he’s going to need some star teammates to elevate this team from the abyss. 

LaMelo’s numbers have increased to 23.3 points and 8.4 assists per game, up from 20.1 and 7.6, respectively, last year. Yet an area in which he has tried to improve, getting to the foul line, has barely moved: from 3.2 attempts to 3.4 this season, despite the team hiring a former NBA referee to work with him on drawing fouls. 

Part of the problem is that Ball likes to shoot long threes that aren’t always the best shot to take, and he doesn’t drive to the basket nearly enough, where he would be more likely to create contact. A little acting can also help, as emphasizing contact tends to get the officials to blow the whistle. 

Lamelo Ball in a Charlotte Hornets jersey drives the ball to the hoop during a preseason game against the Washington Wizards
Lamelo Ball drives during a preseason game against the Washington Wizards on Oct. 10, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Hornets via Getty)

Things are in flux right now with the Charlotte Hornets. They did make the play-in tournament the last two years — but got spanked each time. There’s not much top-notch talent on the team outside of LaMelo. The team’s second star, Miles Bridges, pleaded no contest to a felony domestic violence charge, for which he received three years probation on Nov. 3 of last year. 

The incident is currently being investigated by the league, and last week, GM Mitch Kupchak stated that the team is monitoring the situation. He sounded like he might be interested in bringing him back when he’s eligible to return. Bridges himself said on Tuesday that he might be back as early as March, which is doubtful considering he’ll likely face a suspension following the league investigation. 

While it would help the team on the court — and LaMelo, who remains close to Bridges, would surely welcome it — Bridges’ return would cast a pall over the team in the eyes of many fans who may already be running out of reasons to root for the Hornets.  

Terry Rozier is the second leading scorer on the team at 21.8 ppg. He’s having maybe his best season, but he’s not the type of talent that can elevate a club to the top of the league. P.J. Washington is another player having a good year, but when your top players aren’t top-tier, there’s only so far that you can go. 

At Media Day, there was hope for some of the younger players like James Bouknight, Kai Jones and J.T. Thor, but halfway through the season, Thor barely gets minutes and Bouknight and Jones seem to be hidden away in witness protection. 

One way or another, this team needs help fast, because time could be running out. The way I see it, there are three ways to improve your club in the NBA. First, there’s free agency. That can be tough in Charlotte, however, as the Queen City isn’t considered a destination site.

The Hornets enticed Gordon Hayward to Carolina in 2020, but they had to overpay to acquire him. While he has been a good player when healthy, his injury history continues to hamper him. He’s played in only 34 games out of 60 so far this year after having spoken at Media Day about setting a goal to avoid those nagging injuries. His scoring average has also plummeted each season, down to 13.9 this year from 19.6 his first season with the Charlotte Hornets. 

Trades are another way to improve, but Charlotte just dipped their toe in the water at the trade deadline rather than going in for a polar plunge and making dramatic changes. They traded starting center Mason Plumlee to the L.A. Clippers for Reggie Jackson and a 2028 second round draft pick. They bought out Jackson’s contract, leaving them with just the pick. 

They also sent Jalen McDaniels to Philadelphia for Svi Mykhailiuk and a 2023 and 2027 second round pick, considered an underwhelming return, but the Hornets were looking to shed salary with this move. McDaniels is an unrestricted free-agent in 2023 while Washington is restricted, which means Charlotte can match any offer he receives and retain his services. With this move, it appears they are choosing Washington over McDaniels. 

Trading Plumlee elevates first-round draft pick Mark Williams into the starter’s role, and he had a big block of a Trae Young jumper and dunk near the end of the game against the Atlanta Hawks to secure the win for Charlotte just before the All-Star Break. Williams also contributed to the team’s win against San Antonio in their last game before the break with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocked shots. He’s a defensive force in the middle for a team that can use one, and it’s good he will get more of an opportunity with Plumlee gone, but winning right now might be the last thing the Hornets need. 

The Charlotte Hornets drafted Mark Williams in June 2022. (Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBA via Getty)

The future might be in losing, increasing their odds to get the first pick in the draft this summer. They are currently fourth in the order with a 12.5% chance to win the lottery. France will be sending the US its biggest gift since the Statue of Liberty in 1885 with the arrival of Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-5-inch unicorn who is considered the best NBA prospect since LeBron James. He can do it all on the court, including handling the ball like a guard with a shooting range that stretches beyond the 3-point line. 

Wembanyama is a game-changer, and any team that gets him immediately gets a bundle of national TV games as well as sellouts across the nation as fans clamor to see the next big thing. It also changes the projections for Charlotte. Right now, their ceiling is limited, and if they’re not on the rise soon, it’s entirely possible their lone star LaMelo looks for brighter pastures once his contract is up in 2024. 

Wembanyama changes all that; it makes Charlotte a basketball hotbed, seats at the Spectrum Center will be hard to come by, and for the first time in many years, Charlotte basketball will matter, with a chance to create a strong buzz around the duo of LaMelo and “Wemby.” 

Here’s what LeBron had to say about him: “Everybody’s been a unicorn over the last few years, but he’s more like an alien. No one has ever seen anyone as tall as he is but as fluid and graceful as he is on the floor … He’s for sure a generational talent.” 

But what if the ping-pong balls don’t bounce the Hornets’ way? There are still a couple of gems in the upcoming draft who could greatly improve this team, if not as dramatically as Wembanyama. 

Scoot Henderson is second on everyone’s list, and most years, he would be the consensus top pick. He’s considered a Ja Morant clone, and that’s top-drawer, so even the consolation prize would be a winner. A backcourt of LaMelo and Scoot could birth a SportsCenter Top Ten highlight every night — similar to how Ball and Bridges were a dynamic duo before things went bad. 

In most mock drafts, the Thompson Twins — Amen and Ausar, not the pop group from the ’70s — are next on the board. Both brothers are 6 feet, 7 inches with off-the-charts athleticism, but they are still considered raw, especially on the offensive side of the ball. They would have a lot of upside, but plenty of risk.

The safer pick would be 6-foot-9-inch Alabama freshman Brandon Miller, considered the best player in college basketball, who has been compared to Kevin Durant by some. I have watched him play a lot, and while I think Durant is a stretch, he’s going to be a helluva player in the NBA. 

[Editor’s Note: It was alleged in court testimony on Feb. 21, after this story was submitted, that Miller delivered the gun that then-Alabama teammate Darius Miles used to allegedly shoot and kill 23-year-old Jamea Jonae Harris in January. Miles and another man face capital murder charges, and though Miller himself has not yet been charged with anything and denies any wrongdoing, his involvement in this case is worth noting.]

Charlotte went into the season without a lot of expectations, but 17-43 is a big disappointment after going 43-39 last year. Being bad is better than being in the middle, a place often called basketball hell, because the lottery offers hope … but you need luck. 

There are 22 games left for the Hornets to secure their place in the lottery and end up with the right combination of ping-pong balls. There’s a saying: “It’s better to be lucky than good.” Simply put, the Hornets aren’t good, so they better hope they’re lucky.

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