Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego had no obligation to seek his players’ blessing to pivot to a youth movement this season.
But he did need to be transparent: To let each of 20 players — several of them owed eight-figure guaranteed salaries — know where they fit heading into training camp and what he expected of each one.
“J.B. has been amazing for us older guys. He’s been straightforward with us, he told us the direction he’s going in, and what he wants from us. That’s all you can ask,” power forward Marvin Williams said Wednesday following practice at the Smith Center.
“We understand the situation. When we get our opportunities, we’ll make the most of it.”
Borrego has said repeatedly he’s committed to playing the young guys this season, as the Hornets rebuild following All-NBA point guard Kemba Walker’s departure for the Boston Celtics. There’s a perception among some Hornets fans this means freezing out veterans such as Williams and Nic Batum. But that’s not the plan.
Rather, when it’s a close call, Borrego will play the younger option. But if a veteran clearly beats out one of the kids, the minutes will reflect that.
“If I’m going to be a coach who says, ‘Competition is the No. 1 thing on my board,’ then I have to give (veterans) the ability to compete for minutes,” Borrego said.
“I’m not strictly handing minutes to young guys. The young guys have to go earn this.”
Borrego had discretion over playing time his first season as coach a year ago. But now he’s clearly asserting that; in September he told the Observer he doesn’t view it as his job to worry about who has the longest contract, the highest salary or how highly a player was drafted. What he sees in practice and games are the only factors in doling out playing time.
That could make for some awkward situations. Forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft, said Monday he didn’t really know what his role would be on this team. When asked what he’d been told regarding that, Kidd-Gilchrist replied, “No comment.”
There are four veterans with seven or more seasons of NBA experience on this roster making more than $10 million this season: Williams, Batum, Kidd-Gilchrist and Bismack Biyombo. Kidd-Gilchrist and Biyombo might struggle this season to be in the rotation. But youth movement or not, Borrego needs Williams and Batum, whether as starters or reserves.
With Walker and the retired Tony Parker gone, the Hornets didn’t just lose great point guards, they lost key leaders. Borrego has talked about having to “manufacture” some leadership on this team until it evolves naturally.
Williams, entering his 15th NBA season, has been more proactive since the summer in mentoring the young guys. It’s not Williams’ nature to bark at teammates, the way Parker did, but his setting an example is important.
“One of the biggest things for our young guys is (to think), “Look at Marvin, he’s a true pro.’ Marvin checks those boxes every single day. He takes this as his job, as his profession, and there is a pride about his work every single day,” Borrego said.
“I’m going to expect him to lead us in that area. He understands that.”
Example: When Williams is in the weight room, he takes notice of which teammates are and aren’t there, as well. He tells the young guys to treat weight training like brushing your teeth — either you observe it as a daily habit or you’re not taking care of yourself.
Fans give Batum lots of grief for not performing commensurate with his five-year, $120 million contract. However, he is by far the Hornets’ most versatile player; as Williams described, “He is the one guy who literally can do everything on offense and defense.”
That versatility might be that much more important now. With Walker and No. 2 scorer Jeremy Lamb no longer here to bail out bad possessions, and in the absence of Parker’s play-making off the bench, the Hornets need the ball movement and creating Batum provided in previous seasons. They also need his length and experience defensively.
Borrego has told Batum he needs him to be more aggressive offensively. But that isn’t just about shooting, it’s about again becoming a primary ball-handler and decision-maker.
“The team was different last year. Now, maybe, they need to bring me back to what I was the first two or three years here,” Batum told the Observer. “More a creator. They didn’t ask that of me last year; it was a totally different role.”
▪ Three players were limited in practice Wednesday by injury: Malik Monk, with a sore toe, and Cody Martin and Joe Chealey, both with ankle injuries.
▪ Asked which players have looked the best so far, Borrego said it’s too early to say — to ask him in a couple of days, closer to Sunday’s first preseason game against the Celtics in Boston.