Charlotte Hornets

Hornets’ priority is 'player development.' Here's how new coach James Borrego defines it

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak (right) was charged with finding a coach with great skills in player development. San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego (left) got the job over about nine other candidates.
Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak (right) was charged with finding a coach with great skills in player development. San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego (left) got the job over about nine other candidates.

In NBA-speak, "player development" is like world peace: There’s universal support for the concept, but great divergence in how it should be achieved.

This much is undeniable, in regard to new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego: The organization that sculpted his view of pro basketball – the San Antonio Spurs – has been spectacular at that aspect of coaching.

You don’t draft in the late 20s or worse, as the Spurs have done constantly over the past 20 years, and still mine the Tony Parker’s and Manu Ginobili’s unless you’re great at improving the guys you drafted.

To his credit, Borrego doesn’t presume he has all this mastered. I like how he put that at his introductory news conference, that he doesn’t arrive with a "pocket of fairy dust" that will instantly transform an aging, expensive roster that won 36 of 82 games.

But Borrego understands item one of his job description: Make the young guys better now. The obvious candidates are Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez. However, Borrego added Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminsky to that developmental list.

Charlotte Hornets new head coach James Borrego (left) and general manager Mitch Kupchak share a laugh at the start of Borrego's introductory news conference at the Spectrum Center on Friday. David T. Foster III

Borrego didn’t specify, but it’s obvious why MKG and Kaminsky belong there: In an era when "two-way player" is the league’s hottest term, Kidd-Gilchrist’s lacking 3-point range and Kaminsky’s defensive limitations are significant flaws for players the Hornets chose with top-10 picks.

If they don’t get better, their roles could shrink next season. Kidd-Gilchrist was a favorite of Borrego’s predecessor, Steve Clifford, for his defense. Also, the prior coaching staff showed a lot of patience with Kaminsky because they like his ratio of 7-foot height and perimeter skills.

But what Clifford thought is no longer relevant. General manager Mitch Kupchak reminded the media of that Friday.

“Steve Clifford did a great job here for five years,” Kupchak said, “but it was time for a change.”

Management wasn’t enthralled with how Clifford and his staff did at player development. I think that coaching staff did some fine work in that area, particularly in refining Kemba Walker into a two-time All-Star, particularly by making his 3-point range more reliable.

It’s obvious “player development” was the No. 1 phase of the profession Kupchak was charged with finding when he interviewed 10 or so coaches for this job.

“I think our biggest room for growth is internal,” Borrego said Friday. “There’s a group of young guys that, after this summer, should take a major leap.

“If they take a major leap, our roster changes significantly.”

What’s development?

That’s where it gets diverse and complicated. What is player development? Obviously, it’s assistant coaches and strength-and-conditioning specialists and shot doctors cleaning up flaws. It’s players treating this as a year-round job, getting just as much out of the summer as the season.

But it’s also about accountability and how a player’s skills fit into team concepts. That’s where it got a bit sideways, regarding Clifford’s vision of the development concept.

Clifford didn’t dislike Monk or have a bias about playing rookies (he played Kaminsky and Cody Zeller plenty their rookie seasons). He saw flaws in a 19-year-old’s game that should be addressed, rather than “gifting” minutes based on when a player was drafted.

Clifford isn’t an outlier in that view. Phoenix Suns interim coach Jay Triano had more player-development responsibility than maybe any of his 29 peers last season, because of the Suns’ roster makeup. Triano said the most important element of player development, even with a team deep in rebuilding mode, is not sending the message to young players there aren’t playing-time consequences to their mistakes.

Borrego’s view

I suspect Borrego wouldn’t have much disagreement with what Triano said. Consider how Borrego described his mentor, Spurs legendary coach Gregg Popovich: “He does a great job of holding players accountable – of coaching them, but still loving them – and I will take that with me.”

I asked Borrego to detail his approach to player development. What I heard in reply was a “less-is-more” concept: Don’t flood young players with so much correction they are overwhelmed, but still hold them to expectations.

“My philosophy is you maximize what they do well, first,” Borrego said. “Don’t try to complete the entire puzzle” on the fly.

“We get lost as coaches in trying to create this incredible player overnight, and we end up losing our player. ...We’ll identify a few areas, two or three areas, that we want to focus on right now in the summertime and we’ll work on those.”

Do that – just that – to great success with those five guys, and you’ve made a difference already. 

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129, @rick_bonnell