Charlotte Hornets small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist wants Wednesday night to feel perfectly normal.
He will play a regular-season NBA game for the first time since February against the Milwaukee Bucks, and it will be just his eighth game since the end of the 2014-15 season. In between, he suffered two severe shoulder injuries, both requiring surgery.
Kidd-Gilchrist said he’s tired of talking about his right shoulder. He understands why others inquire, but he’s done all the work to rehabilitate the joint.
"I don’t want to talk about my injury anymore," Kidd-Gilchrist said Sunday following practice. "I’ve been back to my old self ever since I started playing again. I feed off my energy. That’s always how I’ve played."
In some ways, Kidd-Gilchrist is still the same guy the Hornets drafted No. 2 overall in 2012 at the age of 19. He’s still defense first, the Hornets’ "middle linebacker" by his self-description.
But he’s also evolved. He’s worked at being a better shooter and ball-handler. When he first arrived in Charlotte, there were so many flaws to his jump shot, it looked unfixable. He’ll never be confused with Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry, but he can make an 18-footer and the coaches encourage him to shoot whenever open.
On a more personal level, he’s overcome much of the social anxiety that caused him to stutter and fidget in interviews. That’s exposed a smart, funny guy who is extremely popular with teammates.
"He has an energy level that is so contagious to the other guys," said coach Steve Clifford.
"He can guard primary scorers. He’s, for his position, one of the best rebounders-per-minute in the league. He’s always gotten the ball to the basket. He’s a dependable competitor – you never have to worry about him being ready.
"He does things that make you win."
The Hornets need Kidd-Gilchrist, perhaps now more than ever. They lost Al Jefferson, Jeremy Lin and Courtney Lee in free agency over the summer. Those three provided scoring and depth to a team that won 48 games last season.
Clifford knows this team can’t be as good offensively as last season, so it must be elite defensively from this first game to match last season’s success.
Clifford has compared Kidd-Gilchrist’s return to health to a major free-agent signing. Assuming he stays healthy, it will take some responsibility off shooting guard Nic Batum to defend primary scorers. Batum seemed to wear down under all that responsibility late last season.
While Kidd-Gilchrist is primarily a small forward, it’s his ability to guard any position from point guard to power forward that makes him so impactful.
"I don’t think it’s any secret. I thank the coaching staff for that; they showed me how" to defend so many different positions, Kidd-Gilchrist said. "They challenge me to do it. Who else on this team is going to do that?
"I have to. And it is my thing. So why not just do it?"
Example: If Frank Kaminsky can’t play Wednesday after suffering a right foot strain last week, then 6-7 Kidd-Gilchrist will likely shift over and play some power forward, backing up Marvin Williams. No big deal, he says.
"If our four man is down and out, then I’m the next one. It’s different, but I like it," Kidd-Gilchrist said of shifting positions. "I just want to be on the court."
It’s been too long since that was so. He used his time away productively, monitoring games and practices and offering the coaching staff advice. He says that created a closer bond with Clifford.
"When I was hurt he would always ask me what I see out there. How did the defense look? I got a lot of experience off the court through him," Kidd-Gilchrist said.
"I’m dedicated to him and the way he wants to play me. I’m buying in even more to his system."
One other thing tops Kidd-Gilchrist’s agenda:
"My goal is to be healthy the whole season. When I get to that point, I’ll say ‘Yes! Let’s Go!’"