Analysis: A timely shift might’ve occurred for the Hornets in Dallas. And it should continue

·5 min read

This was going to be the plan anyway.

Even before the latest injury dominoes fell for the Charlotte Hornets, essentially forcing their hand to fly in a few reinforcements to assist in Dallas on Friday night, things were already trending in this direction. With one eye toward the future as the regular season winds down, earlier in the week the Hornets’ brain trust had begun considering the switch to start giving the younger players more on-court time.

And for a team headed nowhere, it’s the proper move.

“We’ve kind of been talking about that,” coach Steve Clifford said. “We’re going to kind of slowly evolve into that.”

Those revolutions got sped up, necessitated by the pesky injury bug hovering around the team all season. But in a way, the accelerated transition can be viewed as a good thing, particularly through the prism of their 117-109 win over the Mavericks at American Airlines Center.

We know what Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre can do and how their value to Charlotte’s success is unquestioned. Rozier is averaging career highs in points (21.4) and assists (5.1), similar to Oubre, who’s averaging career bests in points (20.5) and steals (1.4).

Seeing them on the bench in street clothes, which almost feels like the Hornets’ second uniform this season given the inordinate number of injuries they’ve dealt with, is certainly nothing to cheer about. If there’s a positive, though, it’s reflected in the box score and the overall upbeat nature the younger players displayed while holding their own against a team vying for a Western Conference playoff berth, an effort fueled by a 37-point first quarter and a 69-point first half.

Guys like Svi Mykhailiuk, who got the starting nod at shooting guard, Bryce McGowens and Théo Maledon benefited from the absence of two of the Hornets’ top veterans. There was even a James Bouknight cameo, representing the first time he’s been on the court in game action for the Hornets since Jan. 24. It was also just his third appearance with Charlotte in this calendar year, the bulk of which he’s spent with the G League Greensboro Swarm.

The Hornets also welcomed their rookie center into the fold again, something that didn’t appear to be a given a couple of weeks ago. But Mark Williams returned after missing the previous six games with a sprained right thumb and came off the bench, providing the Hornets with that inside presence he displayed before going down.

Yes, Williams clanked a pair of free throws in the fourth quarter against Dallas and uncharacteristically blew a layup under the basket. However, he also had a pair of big buckets after that and there’s no denying how much he helps on the interior. Their defense improves by 4.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the court this season.

“It’s good to have him back,” Clifford said, “and these will be good opportunities, this last stretch of games for him.”

In essence, that’s the case for the bulk of the Hornets’ early twenty somethings. JT Thor, impressive with a career-best 12 points, played fluidly and had moments where he guarded Luka Dončić. McGowens drained a huge 3-pointer in the fourth quarter as Dallas made a charge.

“It felt good to play spoiler a bit,” Williams said. “Obviously, that game had a lot of implications for them. But for me personally, to get back out there, get into a little bit of a groove … Second half was a little rough for me, but it was definitely huge for us. It felt good to be back.”

Mykhailiuk was effective, too, just as he had been during spot duty since joining the Hornets at the trade deadline last month, and he has earned a chance to get a really good look. He will be an unrestricted free agent in the summer and this is his opportunity to leave his mark just as he and the others did against the Mavs.

“What it means is that’s what they are capable of,” Clifford said. “It’s good and it shows they have some ability. And then can they do it again Sunday, and Tuesday and Thursday. That’s what this league is all about. Guys that can score 15 once in every four games, you are not going to win with.

“You need guys that know how to play, know what their game is, play to their strengths, and the team functions well when they are on the floor. So, they do this night-in and night-out, and over a month, over six weeks, that’s how you grow. This is a small, small part of that. But it should give them some confidence.”

And in the case of Maledon, potentially a fresh contract soon. Reappearing in the Hornets’ lineup for the first time since New Year’s Eve, Maledon now has one game of eligibility remaining before reaching the max limit due to his two-way contract. He’d have to be signed to an NBA deal in order to finish off the regular season active on the Hornets’ roster.

Sum it all up and there’s plenty for many of the Hornets to still play for, even if wins like Friday night’s won’t necessarily help any chances to up their odds of landing the No. 1 selection in the June draft.

Over their final seven games, excluding last-place Houston, the Hornets will face teams with a combined 189-169 record — and that includes a pair of outings against Toronto. The goal for the Hornets should be to utilize this final stretch to allow their young contributors to gain the invaluable experience that can help propel them forward into the offseason.

Nothing beats live action and the coaching staff could always use more footage to have when they sit down and go over the good, bad and ugly of their respective individual 2022-23 campaigns.

“It’s definitely huge,” Williams said. “It’s important for us to continue to build that confidence, just get into a groove as we wind down the season and continue to build.”