Charlotte Hornets

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford has a message for fans on rookie Malik Monk

Minutes for Charlotte Hornets rookie Malik Monk (1) have fallen significantly since mid-December.
Minutes for Charlotte Hornets rookie Malik Monk (1) have fallen significantly since mid-December. AP

As Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford returns to the bench this week, he addressed on Friday the hot-button topic of why rookie Malik Monk doesn’t play more.

Monk, the 11th overall pick, has played little since mid-December. Associate head coach Stephen Silas, filling in for Clifford during a medical leave, tightened and shifted the rotation. That meant fewer minutes for Monk and fellow rookie Dwayne Bacon, and more for veteran Treveon Graham.

It doesn’t sound like that will change when Clifford (who was dealing with severe headaches) starts coaching again Wednesday against the Washington Wizards. However, Clifford was emphatic Friday that no one has given up on Monk, a 19-year-old guard out of Kentucky.

“I know this: There are not coaches on this staff that don’t believe in the kid,” Clifford said. “I think he’s done fine. But he’s playing behind some kids who are playing (better): Jeremy Lamb’s summer (improvement) changed things for Malik Monk. You can’t not play Jeremy; you can argue he’s been our third-best offensive player. That’s the stuff I think people either don’t understand or don’t look at.”

Monk averaged 16.4 minutes in his first 22 game appearances, through a home loss to the Los Angeles Lakers Dec. 9. In his 11 game appearances since then, Monk has averaged 9.4 minutes. He currently averages 5.6 points.

Monk’s major liability is his defense. The Hornets knew that when they drafted him after a single college season. He is undersized at 6-3 to play NBA shooting guard, the position he filled at Kentucky. The Hornets have used him some at point guard, as well. Also, Silas looked for situations when opposing teams went to smaller lineups as opportunities to insert Monk.

Clifford repeated something Friday he often says is disregarded about Monk: That an ankle sprain, suffered before the June draft, cost him summer league in Orlando and months of on-court tutoring with the coaches over the summer. Monk wasn’t ready for full activity until just before training camp in September.

While Monk built a strong resume as a shooter-scorer at Kentucky, averaging 19.8 points, he has shot poorly as an NBA rookie: He’s making 34.7 percent of his shots from the field, and 33.9 percent from 3-point range.

“To be a good player in the NBA, you have to have one exceptional strength: He does; he’s a shot-maker. I think – and a lot because of the summer – he hasn’t made shots,” Clifford said. “And as Treveon has come back from injuries, he has played really well.

“Nobody is saying Malik is not going to be a good player. He’s 19 years old.”

Following a medical leave of more than a month, the Charlotte Hornets’ Steve Clifford will return to coach his team starting Tuesday at practice.

An often-stated fan argument is that Monk should be playing in front of veteran point guard Michael Carter-Williams, considering Carter-Williams’ offensive limitations. Clifford said that doesn’t take defense into consideration.

“The Carter-Williams thing is we have to have some defenders on the floor with the second unit,” Clifford said. “Carter-Williams is not just OK defensively. You can argue that a lot of nights he’s right there with MKG (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, as the Hornets’ best defender). He’s an elite defender. You have to have balanced play.”

Bacon, a second-rounder, was a fill-in starter in the opener when Nic Batum and Lamb were both out with injuries for the season-opener. Bacon hasn’t played much lately, spending some time with the G-League Greensboro Swarm.

Clifford said the rookies just have to keep demonstrating patience and focus on knowledge.

“The attitude Malik and Dwayne have to have is, ‘Learn the league, make progress.’” Clifford said. “I have a strong belief they are both going to be very good players.”

Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford has been cleared to return to the bench next week, the Hornets announced Thursday night.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; Twitter: @rick_bonnell

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