In the two games since Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford returned from a medical leave last week, guard Nic Batum has looked more engaged.
That is no coincidence, Batum said Monday morning: Clifford is finding ways to get Batum, the Hornets’ best passer, more involved, particularly early in games. Sometimes that specifically means running plays featuring Batum. Other times, it just means leaning the offense more toward actions that have optimized Batum’s skill set in the past.
“The way he’s (had) me play the last two games, I’ve moved (with or without) the ball a lot more,” Batum said at shootaround before Monday night’s home game against the Sacramento Kings.
“I’ve been in my rhythm a lot more the past two games. Especially the last game, when we ran all the plays we used to run the first two years” since Batum was traded from the Portland Trail Blazers to the Charlotte Hornets.
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Batum’s individual statistics weren’t really different in Clifford’s first game back, a blowout victory over the Washington Wizards (11 points, four assists and three rebounds). However, in that game Clifford got Batum and fellow guard Kemba Walker heavily involved early, and the Hornets set a franchise record with 77 first-half points.
Saturday, Batum scored a season-high 26 points, on 8-of-12 shooting, and added six assists. Although the Hornets lost in the final seconds to the Miami Heat, Batum’s increased involvement offensively looked like an encouraging sign.
Batum has had a poor season by his statistical standards, particularly as a shooter (.410 from the field, .288 from 3-point range). Clifford missed about six weeks while addressing a severe headache issue, related to sleep deprivation. Earlier in the season, Batum was also out about six weeks while a torn ligament in his left elbow healed.
“We’ve always tried to get him touches early in the game. There are two reasons for that. The other night, he was scoring. But also he makes the right play” for teammates, Clifford said of Batum. “He’s an easy guy to run plays for, because (with him in control), everybody touches the ball.”
The Hornets offense changed some this season with the addition of center Dwight Howard, who expects to get the touches near the basket regularly. Howard is second on the Hornets in scoring this season, at 15.5 points per game. Batum played less than a half of the Hornets’ first preseason exhibition before injuring his elbow, so his adjustment to playing with Howard was thrown off.
“You had an added guy that the ball goes to,” Clifford said of replacing Cody Zeller with Howard as the Hornets’ starting center. “So much of guys playing well and being in rhythm is knowing where they are going to get the ball and where their teammates are.”
Hornets power forward Frank Kaminsky is a key member of the second unit, particularly as a scorer. Kaminsky has reached at least 10 points in 10 of his past 13 games. In that span, he’s made 21 of his past 50 3-point attempts, or 42 percent.
“I think it’s the best since he’s been here, “ Clifford said of 7-footer Kaminsky’ third season in the NBA. “He’s a product of work. He’s very diligent, and when he works, it’s very concentrated and intense.
“He’s in rhythm and there is no hesitation right now. When he’s half-open, that ball is in the air. I don’t think there is anything more important for him than that. His exceptional trait, particularly for a man of his size, is to attack closeouts” when defenders over-commit to getting to him on jump shots.
Zeller progress, but no scrimmage
Reserve center Cody Zeller had left knee surgery in mid-December to repair a torn meniscus. Zeller has been cleared to do some light, non-contact work on the court – hopping for jump shots and some balance-and-agilty drills. The next significant step would be clearance to start playing 2-on-2 or 3-on-3, to test the knee’s healing. No timetable has yet been established for that step
“He’s doing a lot of conditioning, everything that he can,” Clifford said.
Projected recovery time was six to eight weeks. Zeller had the surgery Dec. 12, so eight weeks would be approximately the end of January.
Bonnell: 704-358-5129: @rick_bonnell