Charlotte Hornets

Hornets questions: On Devonte Graham’s minutes, Kemba the All-Star, waiving Nic Batum

Charlotte Hornets rookie Devonte Graham is such a pleasant surprise.

The Hornets haven’t been great at the draft, and particularly so regarding success in the second round. New general manager Mitch Kupchak traded two future seconds to the Atlanta Hawks to acquire Graham a couple of picks outside June’s first round. The former Kansas point guard, who grew up in Raleigh, has started as an injury fill-in for Jeremy Lamb the past three games, and is proving to be a keeper.

Now, Lamb appears close to returning from a hamstring strain. There is a good chance he plays (and presumably starts) Tuesday at the Los Angeles Clippers. What becomes of Graham, who has gone from playing sporadically to averaging more than 20 minutes of late?

That leads your questions for this week’s Hornets mailbag:

Q. When Lamb returns from injury, does Graham take minutes from Malik Monk and/or Tony Parker? Or does he fall out of the rotation?

A. James Borrego is the 12th NBA head coach I’ve covered. In a half-season, he has been more improvisational with his rotations than any of the other 11, and it’s not close. He has already passed 250 different five-man lineups, and most of those weren’t injury-driven.

So I certainly don’t think Graham will disappear after he demonstrated he’s ready to contribute. But it’s going to be tricky balancing Graham’s development with the obvious need for Parker’s skill/savvy on a team with a narrow margin for error.

You would have predicted in September that Monk would be far ahead of Graham in the pecking order, and that’s not the case. It’s a more surgical situation: Sometimes you need Monk’s scoring to make up a deficit and sometimes you need Graham’s ballhandling/decision-making to protect a lead.

The other issues will be managing Parker’s body at 36 and whether the Hornets stay in the playoff race. If the Hornets slipped to 10th or 11th in the Eastern Conference standings at the end of January, do they start playing Graham more and Parker less to prioritize the future over the present?

Q. Why don’t the Hornets just waive Nic Batum, like Memphis did, if they can’t trade him?

A. I assume you’re referring to the Memphis Grizzlies’ decision to stop trying to make it work with Chandler Parsons, who is owed about $50 million this season and next. Parsons hasn’t been waived, but it appears his career with the Grizzlies is over.

These are comparable situations only in that Parsons and Batum make similar guaranteed salaries and neither is playing the way the team signing him would have hoped. Parsons has reportedly been a disruption, so the Grizzlies extracted him from the environment. I know of nothing Batum has done that you’d describe as unprofessional or selfish. Also, he has started every game this season.

Why would Hornets owner Michael Jordan pay Batum $52 million this season and next not to play? I can’t picture how that would help.

Q. In your opinion, who is playing better, Bismack Biyombo or Willy Hernangomez?

A. Neither provides the reliability the Hornets get from a healthy Cody Zeller at center. Zeller is out for more than a month with a fractured right hand, and this now has to be center-by-committee, including power forward Marvin Williams.

Hernangomez has more upside than Biyombo or Frank Kaminsky. He got the first turn as starter when Zeller was hurt, and didn’t close the deal. He has the tools, but so far lacks the consistency, particularly on defense. Biyombo is still an NBA player, and figures to be for several more seasons, but he’s not someone you picture in a long-term plan.

Q. Do you think Zeller’s screen-setting ability boosts Walker’s production? It seems as though Kemba has a harder time getting going without Zeller.

A. Zeller’s screen-setting, among the most precise in the NBA, boosts every teammate’s production. I actually think Zeller’s absence hurts Batum more than Walker, because Zeller and Batum play off each other so well.

I’ve seen several instances lately when Batum was playing with Hernangomez, and Hernangomez’s indecision about rolling to the rim threw off what would have been some easy opportunities with Batum feeding Zeller.

Q. In your opinion, does Kemba deserve to start in the All-Star Game?

A. Yes, I believe he and Boston’s Kyrie Irving should be the starting guards from the Eastern Conference. However, “deserve” and “All-Star Game starter” don’t really fit in the same sentence.

The NBA decided a long time ago that fan participation should decide the starters (that fan Internet vote now counts 50 percent, with voting by current players and media each counting 25 percent).

That means who starts an All-Star Game isn’t all that important, and not reflective of who is “best.” The All-NBA team at the end of the season is much more of an honor than who starts an exhibition in February.

Q. Is Kemba’s relationship with Jordan unique in the NBA? Could you see that relationship persuading Kemba to stay?

A. By definition it is unique, in that he is the only NBA star playing for a majority owner who was an NBA star. I think Walker and all his teammates enjoy Jordan being the head of this franchise. However, I don’t think that changes much about acquiring or retaining talent.

I don’t think Walker needs to be persuaded to stay. How much more could he say about his affection for Charlotte and desire to make the Hornets a winner? The question instead is whether paying him what it would take to retain him is or isn’t in the Hornets’ long-term best interest. And they at least need to discuss that internally again before the Feb. 7 trade deadline.

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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