A lot of Charlotte Hornets fans – and I get this reaction – think the past handful of games are proof positive that rookie Malik Monk deserved heavy minutes all season.
I think the past three games, each with Monk scoring 21 or more points, demonstrates that not throwing him haphazardly into the rotation, regardless of performance, was how he should have been coached.
This is a learning process, and Monk, who spent a single college season at Kentucky, had lots to learn. He has a gift for scoring. That’s no revelation. But his defense and his decision-making were a mess early this season, and not holding him accountable for that would have just been enabling.
Monk is growing. It’s entertaining that he’s scored 21, 26 and 22 points in consecutive games. But it’s more important he had 15 assists, to six turnovers, in those games. It’s also more important he wasn’t such a defensive liability in those three games that coach Steve Clifford could trust him to stay on the court.
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That wasn’t the case in December, when Clifford cut back his minutes. That wasn’t punishment. It was correction. It was telling Monk to re-evaluate how he was functioning because at the time his defense and his decision-making were hurting a team full of veterans that was shooting for the playoffs.
Yes, he was the 11th overall pick, a star at Kentucky. He was also 19 years old at the time, not physically developed by NBA standards, and had missed the entire summer with an ankle sprain.
To his credit, Monk has the capacity to joke at his own expense. Clifford mentioned that postgame Sunday, after Monk finished with 22 points and five assists in a 123-117 home loss to the Indiana Pacers.
Recently, Clifford showed Monk multiple film clips of him repeating the same defensive mistakes. Clifford reminded Monk they’ve been talking about these bad habits since January.
“Actually, Steve,” Clifford recalled Monk replying, “we’ve been talking about this since my first day here in June.”
That first meeting, right after the draft, Clifford showed Monk what could be described as a horror film of his defense with the Wildcats, commenting, “You don’t just have to make an adjustment; this has to change!”
It is changing. Certainly, not all the way to what Monk needs to be defensively, but it’s progress. Just as it’s progress in the pick-and-roll – the foundation of all NBA offense – that Monk is becoming more conscious of teammates. To, as Clifford described, “play in a manner so that he can both score and the rest of the guys can play well when he’s on the floor.”
Monk got a slew of questions about all that as he left the locker room Sunday.
“I’ve been watching Kemba (Walker, the Hornets All-Star point guard) when I was sitting on the bench. I’m watching everything he’s doing,” Monk said.
There was a time early on this season when Monk often seemed to lose track of the man he was assigned to guard. As Clifford described, “Defensively, it’s different for him. He’s never, frankly, given a lot of effort at that end of the floor. He knows that.”
How rapidly plays develop at the NBA level was a huge adjustment.
“Everything is early,” Monk said of the 24-second NBA shot clock and such aggressive, dynamic ball-handlers at both point guard and shooting guard, the two positions he’s playing as a Hornet.
“You’ve got to be a step ahead. I feel like I’m learning every single game.”
This summer is big for Monk, not just in terms of building up his body, but also processing mentally all the things he’s experienced the past seven months, good and bad.
“He had to make bigger adjustments than most people. He had carte blanche at Kentucky,” Clifford said. “He’s very bright. That will determine just how soon he becomes a very good NBA player.”