This Charlotte Hornets coaching staff has a strong record with reclamation projects.
Jeremy Lin was on the outs with the Los Angeles Lakers when he signed with the Hornets the summer of 2015. He played so well his single season in Charlotte that the Brooklyn Nets gave him a huge contract. Nic Batum was coming off his worst NBA season with the Portland Trail Blazers when the Hornets acquired him. A year later, he’d played so well the Hornets offered him $120 million.
Now the test is Michael Carter-Williams, the Hornets’ new backup point guard. He signed for a single season and $2.7 million, reflective of how his career has declined since being NBA Rookie of the Year in 2014.
It’s different here. It’s a bright light for me; they know their direction and they’re looking for pieces. I think I can be a big help.
Michael Carter-Williams about his role with the Hornets
He’s been traded twice in four seasons. His latest team, the Chicago Bulls, chose not to make him a qualifying offer to restrict his free agency. He never caught on as a Bull after being traded from the Milwaukee Bucks halfway through the preseason.
“It was hard in Chicago,” Carter-Williams said in a one-on-one interview with the Observer. “I came in off an injury (a knee bruise). I didn’t get a training camp in Chicago. I was behind a lot in the plays, in the team’s chemistry. Everything in the organization was going in a different direction.
“It’s different here. It’s a bright light for me; they know their direction and they’re looking for pieces. I think I can be a big help.”
Carter-Williams’ flaws are well-chronicled: He is a career 25 percent 3-point shooter in a league where long-range shooting is evermore important. He’s not the best pick-and-roll point guard, and that is central to almost every NBA offense.
But consider the assets: He is 6-foot-6 with a 7-foot wingspan, which allows him to defend either guard position and disrupt passing lanes. He has five career triple-doubles and flirted with a quadruple-double his first game in the NBA.
As starting point guard Kemba Walker said Wednesday, there is every reason for him to be as hungry as any Hornet this season.
“He feels he has to prove himself,” said Walker, who served as a matchmaker between the Hornets and Carter-Williams. “I don’t think there’s any other situation he should be in, but with us.”
The structure is there: The Hornets have a respected shooting coach in Bruce Kreutzer and a point-guard guru in Steve Hetzel, who helped Walker reach All-Star status.
This is a prime opportunity to get back on course, and potentially earn a lucrative multiyear contract with the Hornets or some other team in the summer of 2018.
Walker and Carter-Williams share roots in the old configuration of the Big East; Walker starred for Connecticut and Carter-Williams played for Syracuse before the Philadelphia 76ers drafted him 11th overall in 2013.
These two worked out together the summer before Carter-Williams’ rookie season. They have the same agent, Jeff Schwartz, who represents several Hornets.
So when Walker did his sales pitch – both to Carter-Williams and Hornets management – he drew everyone’s attention.
“Any time your best player endorses a player, you’ve got to listen,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said.
Kemba (Walker) told me coach (Steve Clifford) is a really straight-up and honest guy. That’s big for me.
Michael Carter-Williams on the Hornets coach
Walker and Carter-Williams had a long talk about the Hornets’ culture, particularly coach Steve Clifford’s persona. Clifford can be brutally honest with players, but they appreciate knowing where they stand.
“Kemba told me coach is a really straight-up and honest guy,” Carter-Williams said. “That’s big for me. I’ve been told a million things in this league. I was Rookie of the Year, and then got traded…
“So it’s hard for me to sit back and believe everything I hear.”
Carter-Williams’ inexpensive salary, playing a premium position, speaks to both his current status in the league and the Hornets looking to avoid paying luxury tax.
However, he checks several boxes the Hornets desired: A big point guard who can play with or separate from Walker. A guy whose height might mitigate rookie Malik Monk being small for a shooting guard at 6-3. A long-armed defender who could disrupt opponent passing lanes, and help teammates recover defensively.
Bad as the bench was last season, the Hornets need Carter-Williams as much as Carter-Williams needs them. It’s a project well worth everyone’s energy.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell