In the Charlotte Hornets locker room after the team’s 101-92 victory over the New York Knicks on Monday, forward Nic Batum had something to say to his second-year teammate Malik Monk.
“I thanked him,” Batum said. “Like, for real, I did.”
That’s certainly far from this team’s normal script, especially considering Monk’s nightly averages of 10 points and just over 18 minutes, but he certainly earned that gratitude Monday. Monk scored 12 of his 14 points in the fourth quarter, all on 3-pointers, helping offset one of the Hornets’ worst shooting performances all year.
So yes, a little praise was well-deserved. If not for Monk’s timely 3-point shooting, to steal a line from coach James Borrego, there’s a much greater chance the Hornets let one slip to the Eastern Conference’s worst team.
“We couldn’t make a shot tonight probably until the fourth quarter, and Monk was a big part of that,” Borrego said postgame. “He was special in the fourth. That’s what he can do. Give him credit.”
Yes, absolutely. Credit where credit is due. But also ... there’s a reason this sort of performance from Monk is still infrequent.
If a player possesses the profound scoring talent Monk does, then why is he playing less than a half the game? Because, for as gifted a shooter as Monk is, for a long time, that’s all he was.
Monday, he showed glimpses he can be more.
‘He can get hot, quick’
When the Hornets selected Monk 11th overall out of Kentucky in last year’s NBA draft, they knew the type of talented scorer he was. His lone year in college, the 6-foot-3 guard averaged 19.8 points per game on 45 percent shooting, highlighted by a 47-point effort in a victory over eventual national champion North Carolina.
That the man can shoot is not in doubt.
“He’s one of those dynamic offensive players,” Borrego said. “He can get you 15 in a heartbeat. I mean, he can get hot, quick.”
But on a Kentucky team largely devoid of other shooters — or scorers at all, honestly — Monk’s role quickly became one-sided. That meant attempting 14.7 shots per game, a permanent green light that never changed based on his teammates or opponents. That, for Kentucky, worked.
In the NBA, not so much.
For all of Monk’s offensive prowess, the other parts of his game — defense, rebounding, passing ... you know, everything else — lagged behind when he got to professional level. As a result, his minutes dipped. When Monk’s shots were falling, great. But when they weren’t, what else could an undersized shooting guard really offer on the court?
‘To earn consistent minutes ...’
When Borrego was hired as Charlotte’s head coach this offseason, one of his priorities was figuring out not just how best to use Monk, but how to improve him.
His shooting didn’t need improving. Most other things did.
“I know his shot’s not always gonna go in, but to earn consistent minutes, he’s gotta defend, rebound, push the pace for us,” Borrego said. “And when he gets open shots, I want him to knock them down.”
Monk’s minutes have fluctuated over the course of the season, similarly to everyone else’s in Borrego’s constantly shifting lineups. That means every minute is truly earned rather than gifted. It also means Monk, like everyone else, has to prove his worth game after game, on offense and on defense, by scoring and by passing and by breathing effort.
That hasn’t always been Monk’s strong suit, and as a result, his minutes have waned in recent weeks.
‘With time, he’s going to improve’
But then, there are nights like Monday.
In addition to his four 3’s, two of which came during an 8-0 fourth quarter run that put the Hornets ahead for good, Monk played staunch defense. Borrego explained postgame that in today’s NBA, there’s no way to hide a player defensively, especially not with the plethora of talented guards in the league.
“I mean, this league is full of screens. Like, you cannot relax,” Borrego said. “I’m getting hit with a pin-down, a pick-and-roll — it’s not like I get to just stand on the weak side and twiddle my thumbs. I’ve gotta be engaged, I’ve got to get through screens. So he’s competing more getting through screens, number one.
“When he gets through screens, he’s defending his guys one-on-one much better. Tonight he was locked in. I don’t think he got beat one time. I’m going to go back and watch the film — maybe there was one, and I’m sure I’ll show it to him — but one-one-one he’s doing a much better job understanding personnel, who he’s guarding, and staying in front of the ball.
“We can’t have the blow-bys that (have had the) tendency to be a problem in the past.”
Monk’s attention to improving defensively isn’t something only his coach has noticed, either.
“I think that’s the key for him to stay on the court. He’s making a lot of effort to get better at that end, he’s trying to improve, and he’s playing smarter and smarter,” guard Tony Parker said. “I just think with time he’s going to improve.”
Point proven: Monk was not “on” offensively the first three quarters Monday. Having made just 1-of-6 shots and no 3’s, his shooting hadn’t warranted any extended minutes. But that growth on defense did, as did his energy, and so Borrego rewarded him.
And then Monk rewarded his coach’s faith.
Now, Monk won’t have those kinds of outbursts every game. He also won’t shine as well defensively against better teams — the Knicks are far from elite.
But that Monk was able to put everything together for at least one night, where both his offense and his defense were worthy of praise, is notable. And as the Hornets continue clinging to one of the East’s final playoff spots, his continued growth will be paramount.
“I want to trust these guys, and sometimes it doesn’t go his direction,” Borrego said. “Sometimes I stay with a different lineup or a different guy.
“But tonight we went with Monk, and he delivered.”