This was improvisation night for the Charlotte Hornets. As that label implies, there was some good, some bad and plenty of fresh data for the coaches to interpret.
The Hornets entered their seventh exhibition without four core players. That opened up time for rookies P.J. Hairston and Noah Vonleh and second-year pro Cody Zeller. Each left an impression in the 117-114 overtime loss Monday night against the Atlanta Hawks.
Seven-footer Zeller had a big night with 18 points and eight rebounds before fouling out in overtime. He made eight of 11 shot attempts, opening up the floor with two first-half 18-foot jump shots.
“It makes a big difference,” Zeller said of making jumpers outside the lane. “Especially in creating more for my teammates.
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“(The defense) has to cover more ground and we can get into the next pick-and-roll.”
One of the things coach Steve Clifford likes about Zeller’s second preseason is his increased playmaking ability; Zeller had five assists.
“In the first half he made those jumpers, and in the second half he scored and created lots of shots for teammates,” Clifford said.
The starter at Zeller’s power forward spot, Marvin Williams, missed the game with an elbow bruise. So did Gerald Henderson (hamstring) and Lance Stephenson (groin). Center Al Jefferson was given a night off after playing extensively against the Chicago Bulls on Sunday.
That upped the minutes for shooting guard Gary Neal (a team-high 21 points, plus nine rebounds and seven assists) and for rookies Hairston (11 points) and Vonleh (four points and four rebounds).
The injuries to Henderson, who hopes to play Thursday against the Indiana Pacers, and Stephenson have provided Hairston considerably more playing time this preseason than was anticipated.
He’s averaging more than 21 minutes per game. He’s making 45.5 percent of his 3-point attempts. But it’s his performance at the other end that caught Clifford’s eye.
“As much as anything it’s his approach. He’s cutting down his mistakes on defense,” Clifford said.
Hairston credited teammates Stephenson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for much of that progress: “They’re teaching me; I know all the different defensive calls.”
Vonleh made his first appearance of the preseason. In September he had surgery to repair a sports hernia, which cost him training camp in Asheville and the first six exhibitions.
As of last week Clifford didn’t anticipate playing Vonleh in any of the exhibitions. But he was so shorthanded for big men Monday that Vonleh got nearly 19 minutes.
Fouls (four) were a predictable thing for Vonleh, but he went hard to the rim and used his height well inside. There seemed no discernable limitations because of his injury.