Charlotte Hornets

Q&A: New coach James Borrego on his vision for Hornets, what's impressed him so far.

Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego (left), confers with general manager Mitch Kupchak during draft preparations. A minicamp next week precedes the Las Vegas summer league.
Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego (left), confers with general manager Mitch Kupchak during draft preparations. A minicamp next week precedes the Las Vegas summer league. Special to the Observer

A younger team, a faster team, and certainly a team that will feature Malik Monk more. That is coach James Borrego’s immediate vision for the Charlotte Hornets.

“Malik Monk is a major player for us next (season),” Borrego said in a phone interview.

“I knew he was a shooter but being up close to him is impressive. This guy has a chance to be an elite shooter, a very consistent shooter. Someone we can play through for different stretches of a game.”

The Hornets had a news conference in mid-May to introduce Borrego, the former San Antonio Spurs assistant, as coach. He has worked the past five weeks with the roster he inherited, and the Hornets added two rookies, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Kansas’ Devonte Graham, via the draft.

Next week Borrego will oversee a minicamp in preparation for summer league in Las Vegas. He spoke with Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell on Thursday about his early impressions of the team:

Q. You’ve talked about raising the pace, that you aspire to be a team that is efficient offensively in the first five to eight seconds of a possession. How do you accomplish that?

A. You really have to practice with pace. You have to demand that guys run. You have to believe that when they see production when they do run, that they will do it. It’s easy to say we want to play with pace. A lot of coaches out there will say that, but it’s hard to change that (slower) mentality. You’ve got to build the habits in practice to play with pace and energy. Once they taste success with that pace, they will continue to practice it.

Q. What do you know about the players now, compared to when you were hired?

A. I’ve been extremely impressed with the high character of players who we have. Every one of them has exceeded my expectations as guys who will help to build this program.

As players, we’ve had guys consistently in the (practice) gym for the last five weeks. I’ve not seen that (as much this time of year) in my 15 years in the NBA. I didn’t realize the type of workers they were. These guys in general love to work. They’ve put in the time to get better and that is a major part of putting this culture together.

Charlotte Hornets' first- and second-round NBA draft picks Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham are introduced to the media by general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Q. What are your plans for Cody Zeller?

A. Right now, my vision for him is playing him at (center) — someone who runs the floor, sets screens, gets to the basket, is a playmaker in the pocket and has the potential to stretch the ball out to the 3-point line. And really anchor our defense, the way he can really move his feet, stay in front of the ball and make some plays at the rim. Not an elite shot-blocker, but someone who can have a presence at the rim.

Q. How will you handle summer league in Las Vegas?

A. We’ll do our best to put in some of our system (in the minicamp before leaving for Las Vegas) and I’ll take a role in that. I’m going to be on the floor for the first couple of practices, putting in our defense and our offense. And then I’ll step away and let the assistants coach in the evenings.

Jay Hernandez (previously an Orlando Magic assistant) will be our head coach for Vegas. (Former G-League coach) Ron Nored will assist him, Dutch Gaitley (formerly in the Spurs’ video department) will assist him. I’ll watch with Mitch (Kupchak) and Buzz (Peterson) and (lead assistant) Jay Triano.

Charlotte Hornets star Kemba Walker, a two-time NBA All-Star, was not happy how the 2017-18 season unfolded for the team. But on a personal level, the season was "very satisfying."

Q. You said it was a priority to get to know Kemba Walker. What do you know about him now that you might not have known two months ago?

A. We’re texting, we’re calling. We’re definitely on the same page. I see someone who is competitive and cares about this organization at a very high level. I didn’t know just how much he cared about this organization until I spent time with him. This is a person who is fully invested in the city and in the organization. He’s fully invested in wanting to win.

Q. In May you said, “I don’t live in gray areas; I’m black-and-white.” How did you mean that?

A. I like clarity, for people to know their jobs and execute their jobs. I don’t like an organization, a practice or game situation where a guy doesn’t know what’s expected of him or what to do. I think that’s one of the things I control as a head coach — giving people definition and managing those expectations.

Charlotte Hornets' first- and second-round NBA draft picks Miles Bridges and Devonte' Graham are introduced to the media by general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Q. We haven’t talked since the draft. What do you think of the two rookies (first-round forward Miles Bridges and second-round point guard Devonte Graham) and what kind of chance would you give them of playing much next season?

A. I don’t want to put a cap on them. Obviously, we drafted these guys because we believe in them. I see two very competitive individuals. I’d call them elite competitors who have won at a high level. One of my major values is competitiveness and these kids have exhibited that.

As far as on the floor, these are guys who can see the rotation. It depends on the work they put in, (and) how quickly they pick up the NBA game, the NBA speed. I will figure that out a little bit in summer league, where they can fit for us next season. I don’t want to put a cap on them. Both of these guys could absolutely be in our rotation. But if they’re not, we will have a development system in place that will help them get better every single day.

Q. What do you think the roster still needs?

A. Another ballhandler, primarily a backup point guard, someone with point guard experience behind Kemba. We like Devonte and he’s a part of our program. But adding another ballhandler is a priority right now.

Q. You said you aspire for this team to be better at ball movement. Could you detail what you’re looking for?

A. You’re going to hear us talking about making the right read, making the right play: We want to go from good shots to great shots. This roster has playmakers, starting with Kemba Walker. Malik Monk is working extremely hard to create advantages for us, (force defensive) rotations for us. Once the ball starts to move, and gets the defense scrambling, we want to create the best shot possible. When somebody is open, I expect our players to make the right play to move the ball to the open man. That’s how you go from a good shot to a great shot.

I don’t want to see one guy pounding the ball for 15 to 20 seconds. We’re going to have defenses scrambling.

Q. What about Dwayne Bacon and Willy Hernangomez?

A. Dwayne has worked extremely hard so far at finishing at the rim. This is a guy who got to the rim from his high school days through his college days, and we want him to be at the rim consistently. He’s someone who can do that. I like his size, he’s versatile defensively, and I expect him to have a big summer league on both ends of the floor. He has two-way potential for us and I’ve been very impressed with his work this summer.

Billy gets here this week. He had an opportunity to play with the Spanish national team, and he’s chosen to play here. That shows how much he values the season coming up. He’s worked extremely hard on his body, his conditioning. I think he has high basketball IQ, someone we can play through and a willing passer.

Rick Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell
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