At this level, early hiccups are a given.
In the world of first-year players in the NBA, peaks and valleys are part of the right of passage, an inevitable path they’re going to cross more than once. The good news, though, is that unlike in college or the lower ranks, the chance to quench that thirst comes a tad faster as a pro.
There’s no time for dwelling on matters during the regular season’s six-month stretch.
“I think it’s a mentality thing,” Charlotte Hornets rookie Brandon Miller said Tuesday. “You move past from one game to another, You’ve got 82 games so you can’t be just locked in on the past game, and you played bad the last game so you’ve got to go out and play good this next game.
“I think it’s just the mentality and the focus thing, is going out here and playing as hard as you can.”
With Terry Rozier injured and Miller coming off a season-low scoring output in his first career start, the Hornets’ prized draft pick is in the midst of another educational experience. And he’s about to get the opportunity to start more at shooting guard and learn alongside Hornets star LaMelo Ball for lengthier stretches.
An MRI confirmed Rozier, who was injured in the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s win in Indiana, strained his left groin and he’ll be unavailable for at least the next two games, beginning with Wednesday’s matchup with Washington at Spectrum Center. It’s a tough blow for the Hornets, who’ve had key players besieged by injuries during the past few seasons.
Not being able to count on Rozier’s scoring — he leads the team with 22 points per game — and the intangibles he brings is an early gut punch. Just ask Steve Clifford what the Hornets lose with Rozier’s absence.
“Everything,” the coach said. “He’s been impacting every aspect of the game. He’s been guarding the other team’s best player. Obviously, he’s been scoring and scoring efficiently. But as much as anything, it’s just who he is as a competitor, who he is as a teammate. He badly wants to win and I think that’s contagious on any team, especially with better players. So, there’s not an aspect of the game we don’t miss him in.”
Until Rozier returns, the most pressing issue centers around Ball and Miller quickly forming some cohesiveness. They present a different look, most notably in stature since Miller hovers, at minimum, roughly eight inches above Rozier.
“We are trying to be real big, athletic, get into the passing lanes,” Ball said, “just getting out running, offensive rebound and just pretty much doing everything we can.
“We all play for each other, try to help each other. So if we see one lacking, we’ll try to bring him up because he might not be doing as well. So, we just all try to help each other.”
Prior to Rozier’s injury, Miller served as the Hornets’ sixth man, easing himself into the action. But thrust into his first career start in Sunday’s loss in Dallas, he posted just seven points. That’s barely half of what he was averaging through the season’s first five games as a reserve.
“I’m not even worried about it,” Clifford said. “That was his first back-to-back. He guarded Kyrie Irving. I mean, c’mon now. There’s a lot of reasons things happen. No, he did fine. He’s not going to make every shot every night.
“Even Sunday, he did a lot of things to help the team play well. So, it might not have been as good statistically, but he still did a lot of good things.”
Miller isn’t concerned, either, insisting he doesn’t alter his approach whether he’s in the game-opening lineup or coming off the bench. He’ll remain even-keeled as usual.
“Changes, no changes,” Miller said. “It’s all the same mentality. No, it’s no difference. Same energy, just try to go out there and try to get a win with my team against a great team. But as far as any changes or anything, it’s all the same.”
Miller ranks among the top 10 in most of the key categories for rookies this season, including posting the third-most points (13.2) per game. He’s also hovering near the leaders in rebounds (4.5), assists (1.7) and minutes (31.3).
He’s being allowed to play through mistakes, using the guidance of his teammates as much as possible. He’s leaning on them, which in turn gives him the knowledge to navigate certain situations once they arise.
“Definitely getting more comfortable with each game,” Miller said. “I think that just comes with being around older guys and they kind of build my confidence up every day.
“No player is perfect. Every player is going to make mistakes. I think that’s why I come to practice and work hard every day, just to know where to be in the right places, and just to contribute on both ends of the floor and have an impact.”
And that’s even more imperative now with Rozier sidelined for an unspecified period.
“I think that is a focus thing,” Miller said. “I think when everybody is locked in, everybody wants the end goal of each game, as far as just being in the right places on the defensive side, running the correct offense and certain parts of the game, just always being there for your teammates, boosting them up, and giving them confidence that everybody needs just to play through tough crowds.”