Arguably, the biggest roster decision new Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego will make this preseason is who starts at shooting guard.
Or you could view this as the players making that decision.
“Everything is on me,” Malik Monk said of his performance the next three weeks. “(Borrego) said it’s my decision whether I start or not.”
Much has yet to be settled, but the tentative plan is for Nic Batum to shift from shooting guard to small forward. That opens a starting spot next to point guard Kemba Walker. The primary candidates are second-season player Monk and seventh-season player Jeremy Lamb. Technically, you could add Dwayne Bacon to that mix, but I’d be surprised if that’s how this is resolved.
This is an intriguing contrast. Monk is the talented kid still early in an NBA learning curve. Lamb was that same guy six years ago, after he was selected 12th overall in the 2012 draft and before the 2015 trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Hornets.
Getting more return from Monk, drafted 11th overall in 2017, is a big part of Borrego’s tasking. But that doesn’t automatically make Monk the favorite to start. Borrego has frequently praised Lamb as better than he anticipated.
This will play out in practices and five preseason exhibitions before the season opener Oct. 17. But here’s how I’d handicap these two:
The Monk File
Monk is as alpha male as any player on this team. He’s an explosive scorer, and until last season any team he played on revolved around him.
He expected to be NBA Rookie of the Year, then didn’t even make the 10-man all-rookie team. Then-Hornets coach Steve Clifford sat him much of last season because of Monk’s defense and on-court decision-making. Monk didn’t get steady minutes until after the Hornets were effectively eliminated from the playoff race.
“My game was fine last year, it was just the style we were playing,” Monk said.
Borrego has paid abundant attention to Monk since being hired in May. The faster pace that Borrego is installing offensively works to Monk’s strengths.
“His play will dictate - his practices will dictate - whether he is a starter or not,” Borrego said. “He has the ability to play in this league for many years to come - to be an impact player - if he’s willing to put in the work.
“Be professional, take coaching and bring it every day, and he’ll compete on this team at a very high level.”
Monk at 6-foot-3 starting alongside Walker at 6-1 would make for one of the smaller backcourts in the NBA. Borrego is open to that, but this can only work to the extent Monk demonstrates he can survive defensively against NBA shooting guards.
The Lamb File
Trading for Lamb and signing him to a three-year, $21 million contract extension (this season is the last on that deal) has worked out well for the Hornets, but it wasn’t always this positive.
Lamb was rather meek and indecisive when he first arrived. He had a breakthrough the summer of 2017, working with then-lead assistant Stephen Silas. Lamb’s lacking defense improved and his 3-point accuracy shot up to a career-best 37 percent.
Some of this came down to maturing professionally in a way that went beyond what a fan could witness on the court.
“Eating, sleeping, having a routine. Now I know how to play an 82-game season,” Lamb said of his habits. “Whether it’s cold-tubbing every day or eating the right foods. Hydrating, lifting. And being strong mentally.”
That resonated with Borrego.
“He’s got another gear to him and he’s more versatile than I thought. He’s more competitive than I thought,” Borrego said.
Part of this will be about who best complements Walker, who entered camp as the only lock to start. Lamb, who played with Walker on Connecticut’s 2011 national championship team, is taller than Monk at 6-5. He’s also more of a facilitator.
“He’s got more playmaking in him than I anticipated,” Borrego said. “When he has the ball in his hands, he’s a threat to score or to pass. I don’t want Kemba Walker to (have to) produce every single possession for us.”
Lamb has made only 31 starts in 356 prior NBA games. He wants this, but he won’t be crushed if it doesn’t happen.
“That’s (been) my dream ever since I was young - to start in the NBA. But also, winning is above all,” Lamb said. “If my role is to start, then that’s what I’m going to do. If my role is to come off the bench, that’s what I’m going to do.”
The safe thing is to start Lamb based on his greater experience and size. However, Monk has star potential that I’m not sure Lamb could reach. If Walker and Monk are the starting backcourt, Borrego has a huge challenge scheming out a defense. But this team needs someone other than Walker with both the talent and the nerve to take and make shots that decide games.
I don’t know what happens. Borrego doesn’t, either. That’s what makes this fun.