The Charlotte Hornets desperately need the scoring Malik Monk could provide.
What they can’t afford is the defense Monk has provided.
Is there a middle ground to get a return on the investment the Hornets have made on shooting guard Monk’s NBA development?
Coach James Borrego says he’s demanding stepped-up defense this season. The team’s first training camp practice Tuesday at the Smith Center reflected that; players said almost the entire 2 1/2-hour session was devoted to guarding better.
That has never been Monk’s forte. Each of his prior two seasons, first with Steve Clifford as coach, then with Borrego, Monk intermittently slipped out of the rotation, primarily due to his lack of serviceable defense.
Monk believes he’s not all that bad at it, contending he got pulled so quickly after each mistake he never refined what he needs to do.
“It’s a bad rap,” Monk said. “I never really got the opportunity to mess up, because if I mess up, I’m coming out of the game. The last two years that’s been happening.
“I’ve been watching film on that, and trying not to mess up. You’re going to mess up in basketball. It happens. But if I get a consistent opportunity and out there a lot, I’m pretty sure I’ll improve and prove it for everybody.”
The Hornets need Monk to perform; they passed over Donovan Mitchell, now a star for the Utah Jazz, to select him 11th overall in the 2017 draft. The more time passes from Monk being a lottery pick, the less that grants him license. However, the attraction, based on Monk’s one season at Kentucky, was a gift for scoring in a variety of ways.
Never in Monk’s time on this roster have the Hornets more needed the scoring skills he demonstrated in college, where he averaging nearly 20 points per game. Kemba Walker is now in Boston and Jeremy Lamb is in Indiana. Those two combined last season for 41 of the Hornets’ average 111 points.
The rub is Borrego’s patience with poor defense has worn thin. He entered his second season as coach with an edict that those who don’t defend effectively won’t play.
“If you’re going to say you’re about defense, then that needs to be tied to playing time,” Borrego said “If you’re not going to commit to the defensive end, you’re not going to see a lot of playing time.”
Physical, mental or both?
After last season, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak called Monk this team’s best pure athlete. Kupchak also said it was crucial Monk bulk up over the summer. Monk entered the NBA in the fall of 2017 skinny and frail, and two pro seasons didn’t change that much.
Monk gained about 20 pounds since April — he says his weight increased from 182 pounds to 205 — and it showed in his arms and shoulders that he’d been in the weight room. How is that reflected on the court?
“I feel way different. In pick-up (games), I don’t get moved off my spot so easily. When I bump somebody in the air, I can finish now,” Monk said.
“It shows a lot, too. I think you guys will see it Sunday” when Hornets play their first preseason game against the Celtics in Boston.
Greater strength can only be a positive to Monk’s defense, but the issue hasn’t just been him getting pushed around. It wasn’t uncommon for Monk to lose track of the player he was guarding to an extent that the player created separation for open shots.
What must Monk improve?
“Just the overall concept — the mentality to defend. Off the ball and on the ball, competing defensively. He understands that. When he’s off the ball, he’s got to be engaged,” Borrego described.
“And staying in front of his man. He has the ability — the athleticism and size — to do that. Don’t get beat one-on-one.”
Monk has a chance to start this season, but that’s nothing new. He and Lamb were on even footing going into training camp last season. Monk was slowed by an injury, and Lamb excelled, ending up with a career season and a $31 million, 3-year contract with the Pacers.
Even in Lamb’s absence, Monk won’t be named a starter by default. Three wing players — Dwayne Bacon, Nic Batum and Monk — figure to get most of the minutes at shooting guard and small forward.
Monk is the most natural scorer of the three, but Bacon and Batum are bigger bodies and better defenders. For however else Batum fell short last season, he usually guarded the opposing team’s best perimeter scorer.
It wouldn’t be fair to call this a “last chance” season for Monk, but it’s certainly “show-me” time. Borrego sounded encouraged by Monk’s focus at this juncture.
“His attention to detail is the highest it’s ever been,” Borrego said. “I think he’s locked in right now.”
He better be. The room for improvement defensively is large.
“You are what you emphasize,” Borrego said. “This season is going to be about defense.”
▪ Rookie Cody Martin, the Hornets’ second-round pick, sat out most of Tuesday morning’s practice with a sore ankle. Borrego did not consider the injury serious.
▪ Rapper J Cole, who grew up in North Carolina, watched Hornets practice Tuesday. Hornets forward Miles Bridges said Cole is his favorite rapper. Point guard Devonte Graham has played pick-up ball with Cole on N.C. State’s campus, and said he has a solid jump shot.