A week ago, Kentucky coach John Calipari told me something about Charlotte Hornets rookie Malik Monk that sounded like pure hyperbole.
Then, Wednesday night, what Calipari said sounded like truth-telling.
“This is one where you say, ‘How many (other) guys in last (June’s) draft can do what he does?’ I’m going to give a number for you: None. None!” Calipari said Oct. 25.
“There could be guys who are maybe a better point, or a little more consistent shooting the ball. Maybe. But to do the things that he does? You can’t teach it.”
Monk, who lasted 11 picks before the Hornets selected him, is still three months short of his 20th birthday. He spent a single season in college basketball, playing for Calipari’s Wildcats. He’s not particularly big at 6-foot-3, and he still has a lot to learn about NBA-level defense.
But how he described himself following a 126-121 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks was succinct and accurate.
“I can score,” Monk said with a shrug after proving as much. Monk totaled a career-high 25 points on 10-of-17 shooting. That included 5-of-8 from 3-point range.
Put it this way: Monk scored more points in the fourth quarter (18) than NBA leading scorer Giannis Antetokounmpo scored in this entire game (14).
Antetokounmpo’s frustrating night (5-of-16 from the field and five fouls) was in large part due to Hornets forward Marvin Williams’ defense (with some help from Treveon Graham). Point guard Kemba Walker scored 26, making eight of his 12 shots.
But this night was about Monk’s coming-out party. Monk scored 16 of the Hornets’ first 18 points in the fourth quarter. This is the rare skill set Calipari described. And when you’ve coached John Wall, Anthony Davis and former NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose, as Calipari has, that standard is awfully high.
“He’s special in that he’s got a spirit about him, a confidence about him, a swagger about him; his ability to go get five shots without an offense,” Calipari described.
“He comes every day with a smile on his face. But he’s young; you can’t look at him like he’s 24 or 25.”
Hornets coach Steve Clifford would certainly agree with that. Clifford doesn’t want the pressure of expectation to hinder Monk’s development. Monk and fellow rookie Dwayne Bacon are in this rotation because they’re that good (in addition to the obvious injuries to veterans). But each week feels like a series of teaching moments.
“He’s a shot-maker, but I think people need to be fair with him,” Clifford said of Monk. “When he goes in the game, they’re game-planning for him. No disrespect to college (basketball), but he never last year played against guys like this; they’re bigger, faster, stronger. It’s going to take him some time to figure out where his shots are coming from.”
The thing Clifford liked best about Monk Wednesday was his not settling for long jump shots every possession.
“Tonight, it was his decision-making,” Clifford said. “When he plays attacking – going to the basket – he’s a very good passer, too.”
That is all the more important with Monk playing about as much point guard as shooting guard, in response to injuries for Michael Carter-Williams and Julyan Stone.
Monk listens and learns. The word Calipari used was “grooming.”
“I like shooting the basketball,” Monk said. “But me attacking opens up everything for me and my teammates. It’s true.”
Sure was Wednesday, and hopefully many days to come.