Inside a South Florida gym just a few weeks ago and not far removed from the beginning rigors of the NBA grind, an unusual scene unfolded.
An entire complement of players worked up a serious lather while some members of the coaching staff looked on, enjoying the offseason show that was taking place before their very eyes. The motivation to work on their cohesion and build up their camaraderie were extremely evident to James Borrego, leaving the Charlotte Hornets coach beaming with pride.
Borrego believes those sessions — buoyed by Terry Rozier and Gordon Hayward — and the many others that have taken place over the course of the past two months will only help matters as the Hornets tip off training camp at Spectrum Center on Tuesday.
“Well, I think it starts with our leadership group,” Borrego told The Observer. “I give Terry and Gordon a ton of credit for pulling this group together. We recognized leaving at the end of last season that we had a lot of work to do. It’s one thing for your coach to stand up and say, ‘We’ve got to get better’ or ‘We’ve got to push this thing forward.’ But it’s another thing for your players to take ownership of that. That’s what our group has done. I’ve never seen anything like this in my time in the NBA — a full team being committed to stay together, to be together, to work out, both in Charlotte and outside of Charlotte to put this organization a step further.
“When I went into the offseason, I didn’t expect this type of commitment. That’s the one word we talked about, leaving that locker room in Indiana. We’ve got to commit to being a better team.”
He’s getting precisely what he wanted. In a big way, too.
“We’ve gone beyond the commitment of what we were capable of this summer,” Borrego said. “I’m very comfortable with where we are right now, as far as our chemistry, our connection and our commitment to each other. Again, we’ve got the work to do now as the season begins. But our foundation is solid, our culture is solid, our leadership is solid. That’s only going to give us a chance to have a more successful season this year than last.”
Their stinging defeat to the Pacers in the play-in tournament served as their fuel, providing them with a desire to somehow erase that painful memory. It certainly supplied the front office with some high octane during the two major portions of the offseason: the draft and free agency.
New faces on Hornets roster
General manager Mitch Kupchak addressed a variety of needs, starting off by plugging a hole at center by trading for Mason Plumlee. That deal also landed them the 37th pick, which they used to select the lengthy JT Thor. They also drafted James Bouknight, acquired another first-round selection to get ultra-athletic Kai Jones, and signed free agents Kelly Oubre and Ish Smith.
Bringing established veterans on board was a priority and a necessity. Plumlee provides play-making ability at center, having finished seventh in the position in assists last season after posting a career-high 3.6 per game. Oubre was one of 15 forwards in the league who averaged 15 or more points, six or more rebounds and at least one assist and steal per game last season.
Smith’s assist-to-turnover ratio a season ago ranked second in the NBA among the 263 players who logged at least 20 minutes per game. As a team, the Hornets finished 16th in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81) and 25th in turnover percentage (14.9).
Their new pieces give them hope they’ve shored up areas of weaknesses, and it could take a while to figure out how they best co-exist.
The Hornets will have four days of training camp practices. Although those workouts will not be the lone determinant, what transpires there and during the preseason could have big ramifications moving forward. The first preseason game is Oct. 4.
“Training camp will be very important for us in evaluating, especially our young core, No 1,” Borrego said. “And then secondly, what lineups fit best together. And that is something I will experiment to work with throughout camp, in practice, in preseason games and early in the season, as well. I’m going to be learning and taking in information even as the regular season begins, and make tweaks along the way that put us in the best position to win games this season.
“There’s a lot of evaluation that will happen the first week in camp, as well as in the four preseason games, as well as those early regular-season games. So it’s not one area, but I will continue to evaluate a lot of what we have in house and who fits best together.”
Gordon Hayward’s health, LaMelo Ball’s growth
Doing everything possible to keep Hayward healthy, other than encasing him in bubble wrap, is also at the top of the Hornets’ agenda. Hayward’s well-being is paramount and the Hornets witnessed firsthand last season how much his absence hurt.
With their prized 2020 free-agent signee in the lineup, they were 24-20 and hovered as high as fourth in the Eastern Conference prior to injuries taking their toll. In the 28 games minus his services, they were 9-19.
Safeguarding the availability of Hayward, who was one of 12 players to post multiple 25-point first halves a season ago, is as big of a task as any for Borrego. Besides Hayward’s production, his voice is also well-respected, as evidenced by his assistance organizing the voluntary offseason workouts.
“Gordon is a major part of our leadership program here and a major part of our team,” Borrego said. “There is nobody that is more accomplished than Gordon in this locker room. He’s won at all levels. High school, college, NBA. He knows what it takes to win in this league. So I’m looking for him to step up in his leadership. This summer he has. It’s my job to help manage him physically, on the floor, making sure he has his rest, mentally and physically. And it’s his job to step into this leadership role.
“I believe he wants more. He’s going to ask more of his teammates. He has my full support in pushing this group, leading this group in timeouts, in huddles, in the locker room, on the practice court. And I’ve seen him step up in a big way this summer and now we need that to continue from him and our entire group. Leadership is going to be a major part of us taking that next step.”
So will the heights of LaMelo Ball’s growth. He is included in that collection of players Borrego is counting on to display an uptick in becoming more vocal, holding the kind of chats that were so commonplace a season ago with the now-departed Bismack Biyombo.
How Ball fares following up on a show-stopping inaugural campaign impressive enough to earn him Rookie of the Year honors is one of the Hornets’ most pressing questions. Ball avoiding the dreaded sophomore slump to assist in springing them to that next step is a very important item on a hopeful checklist.
“For young guys, I believe the hardest thing to grasp is the consistency of being a great player, a good teammate, day-in and day-out,” Borrego said. “Young players tend to … they’ll take a day off or maybe take a play off or a practice off. For me, my goal and my challenge for Melo is to bring it every day. And be the consistent leader we need, the consistent player we need day in and day out. I want him to step into that leadership role as the general, as the quarterback of this team. Take ownership of this team as the point guard. And I’ve seen him step up in that area.”
Ball’s routines must also be honed. Given the difficulty in maintaining dependability at this level, especially among first- and second-year players, lack of focus can seep its way into the picture. Ball can’t allow complacency to get the best of him, and that also goes for his nutritional intake.
It’s all intertwined.
“I think for any young guy, the day-to-day habits of eating the proper diet, getting the proper rest, getting the proper treatment to get through 82 games” is important, Borrego said. “For us to get to our full potential this season, we need Melo to be at his best every single night. And not just him, but other players as well. But for Melo to do that, he’s going to have to put together these days of consistency, both on the floor and off the floor.”
That goes for the opposite end of the court, too. Offense can’t be his sole focus.
Ball was ninth in the NBA in steals per game last season, registering 1.59 per game and his three deflections per game put him 13th in the league. They need even more production from him in those areas in order to realize that full potential seemingly oozing out everywhere.
“For us to be a top-10 defense, which I believe we can be, and push forward this season, he’s at the forefront of that,” Borrego said. “He’s guarding a top-tier point guard every single night. So for us to be a top-tier defense, he’s going to have to lead that charge, and he’s going to take ownership of this defense. And I believe he’s capable of doing that. He’s been driven over his basketball life through the offensive side of the ball, and now he understands the importance of the defensive end to win games at this level. So I’m thrilled.
“I can’t wait to see him play this season and get going. I see a commitment by him to get this team to the next level and he really has the full support of his teammates and his coaching staff.”
Charlotte Hornets preseason game schedule
- at Oklahoma City, 8 p.m. Oct. 4
- home vs. Memphis, 7 p.m. Oct. 7
- at Miami, 7:30 p.m. Oct. 11
- home vs. Dallas, 7 p.m. Oct. 13
The regular season begins at 7 p.m. Oct. 20 with a home game against the Indiana Pacers.