Charlotte Hornets

5 questions to consider as the Charlotte Hornets hit road for first exhibitions

Key off-season acquisition Nicolas Batum plays for the first time for the Charlotte Hornets Saturday in Orlando.
Key off-season acquisition Nicolas Batum plays for the first time for the Charlotte Hornets Saturday in Orlando. AFP/Getty Images

What do you really know about your team until it starts playing other teams?

The Charlotte Hornets have now practiced for a week this preseason. There has been abundant scrimmaging as the team assimilates seven new players into the system. Coach Steve Clifford said Thursday that most of the installation has been on offensive sets and he now needs to emphasize more defensive concepts.

And finally he gets to test how this roster will work against real opposition. The Hornets travel to Florida for exhibitions against two fellow Southeast Division teams. They play the Orlando Magic at 7 p.m. Saturday and the Miami Heat at 6 p.m. Sunday. That starts a busy preseason schedule that will include two exhibitions against the Los Angeles Clippers in mainland China.

The Orlando and Miami exhibitions won’t be televised locally but will be on WFNZ-AM Radio 610.

Clifford said he plans to play deep into his preseason roster this weekend, not wear down his core players. It’s possible some veterans won’t play both in Orlando and Miami.

All the off-season roster change means a preseason of questions. Here are five worth considering as the exhibitions begin:

Who fits best with whom?

Clifford is confident his team is more skilled and versatile than it was last season. What he doesn’t know is what player combinations will maximize the Hornets’ chances for success.

How would veteran center Al Jefferson blend with rookie big man Frank Kaminsky? Could Kaminsky and forward-center Cody Zeller play together much? How will it work offensively and defensively pairing point guards Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lin?

Lots of hypothetical questions that the exhibitions might answer. Clifford brought in close friend and former Chicago Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau to watch the first few practices, with a special focus on those player pairings. Now whatever ideas arose from training camp get tested against live competition.

How do they maintain strong defense?

The goal of the off-season was to improve the offense without taking a big dip in what has been strong defense the previous two seasons under Clifford.

The Hornets lost a rim-protector when they chose not to extend a qualifying offer of about $4 million to backup center Bismack Biyombo. He averaged about 1.5 shots blocked per game.

The strength of this defense will be more at the wings, where small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and shooting guard Nic Batum are both long and versatile at that end of the court. Each has experience guarding every position except center.

Is Kaminsky up to quick minutes?

The Hornets experienced some second-guessing in June for choosing Kaminsky ninth overall, passing on – among others – Duke small forward Justise Winslow. Winslow went to the Miami Heat, so these two rookies’ teams will play right away (and again in the regular-season opener in Miami Oct. 28).

Seven-footer Kaminsky played well at Orlando summer league, demonstrating skill as a 3-point shooter, ball handler and passer. He can contribute right away at the offensive end.

He’ll find it more challenging on defense. Like most rookies, he arrives in the NBA needing to get stronger to hold his ground in the lane.

Who earns bench minutes at wings?

While Batum and Kidd-Gilchrist are locks to start, the first wing player off the bench seems like a wide-open competition. Keep an eye on Jeremy Lamb, whom the Hornets traded for in June. He didn’t play much his first three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but he’s performed well in scrimmages in Charlotte.

Another 3-point shooter, Troy Daniels, was limited much of the first week of the preseason with a hamstring injury. P.J. Hairston trimmed some weight after summer league while working out with former NBA player and coach John Lucas in Houston.

Is Batum ready for a bigger role?

The Hornets traded with the Portland Trail Blazers for Batum, with the idea of running much of their offense through him this season.

Batum never had that much responsibility with the Blazers. Is he up to it? Here’s an encouraging sign: He recently asked Clifford about a nuance in how the Hornets would cover a certain scheme defensively. Clifford said they hadn’t gone over that point yet in a practice. Batum said he saw this come up game-after-game from last season when he studied video on his own and wanted to make sure he got the concept.

That’s the sort of student of the game the Hornets thought and hoped they were getting in Batum.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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