Before Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego told Malik Monk what Borrego needed, Borrego asked Monk what he needed.
That started a valuable dialogue.
“I knew he trusted me from the beginning,” Monk told the Observer Thursday. “Ever since then, he’s going to tell me (difficult truths). If I’m being lazy, he’s going to let me know right away. If I’m not giving 100 percent, he’s going to let me know right away.
“That’s how, with a player-coach relationship, it needs to be for me to get better. And if we want to win, too.”
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Monk’s productivity of late is impressive. Over the past four Hornets games (in which they went 3-1), Monk averaged 17.5 points. In that span, he made 26 of 50 shots from the field and 11 of 27 from 3-point range.
Monk’s ability to score has never been in question. The Hornets drafted him 11th overall in 2017 based on him producing 19.8 points per game in his one college season at Kentucky. The rub through most of Monk’s rookie season in Charlotte was being competent enough in his defense and in his decision-making with the ball that he could be trusted on the floor when a game is decided.
Then-Hornets coach Steve Clifford played Monk early last season, saw unreliable results, and then didn’t use him extensively again until after the Hornets were out of playoff contention. The candidates who interviewed to replace Clifford after he was fired were all asked in a priority fashion how they would get better results from Monk.
Borrego made it clear, in that first meeting with Monk, that they were jointly vested in Monk’s improvement.
“Soon as he got the job he called me and said, ‘You’re one of the biggest things I want to work on in the organization, other than Kemba’” Walker, Monk recalled.
Same issues, fresh results
Borrego’s areas of concern regarding Monk - decision-making and defense - are the same ones Clifford had. For whatever reasons - passing of time, fresh start, new management - Borrego seems to be drawing improvement from Monk that wasn’t there last season.
It’s not uncommon for a young player to reflect on his shortcomings as a rookie and address those in the off-season. Perhaps this change seems more dramatic because Monk was so disappointed by last season. His scoring average has doubled (from 6.7 ppg., to 13.4) and more importantly his field-goal percentage has risen from 36 percent to 42 percent.
Borrego says Monk has incrementally increased the new coach’s trust in him, and that was reflected in Tuesday’s home victory over the Atlanta Hawks. The Hornets led by only four points heading into the fourth quarter, and Borrego went with Monk, his top reserve, for all 12 minutes of the final period.
Monk’s statistics in that fourth quarter: nine points, 4-of-7 shooting and five assists. That means Monk was either the scorer or the passer on nine of the Hornets’ 14 field goals when they outscored the Hawks 32-25.
That defined what Borrego meant about decision-making.
“It’s ‘Can I trust you with the ball in your hands to make the right play?’ Not the one-on-one play, the right play,” Borrego said. “He’s not just throwing the ball all over the place. If he sees two bodies, I expect him to kick it (to a teammate) and he’s doing that. He’s not trying to make the home-run pass, he’s making the simple play.”
On defense, it’s about becoming familiar enough with how teams look to attack that he has a plan before he’s beaten.
“Malik is starting to figure it out (defensively) a little bit. He’s seeing the pick-and-roll before it happens, he’s seeing the drive before it happens,” Borrego said. “It’s about ‘Doing your work early,’ we call it. He’s got to be in the right position, and when he’s in the right position usually he makes the right play.”
To Monk, that’s about survival, both in avoiding embarrassment and getting clobbered by the vicious picks veteran NBA players set.
“When you’re a rookie, they’re going to come at you every time,” Monk said. “At some point, you just get tired of getting beaten by screens because they hurt. They hurt bad. So I started trying to beat them over every time.”
Trust and leadership
Monk’s progress is about basketball, but it’s also about communication and management skills.
Before Borrego got his first NBA job as a video assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, he earned a Master’s degree in leadership studies at the University of San Diego. When Borrego took this job, he wasn’t oblivious to what the Hornets were before he arrived. For instance, he knew they had to average more assists and attempt more 3-pointers, but he arrived with an open mind to what the players he inherited were and weren’t.
“I told Malik, ‘I’ll coach you based on what I see. I’m not going to coach you based on what I saw last year or what I heard about you last year,’” Borrego said. “I think that settled him down. He said, ‘All right, I trust you, coach. I’ll do what you ask.’”
The foundation of that was listening, then talking.
“You can say what you’ve got to say. But if you’re wrong, he’s going to tell you.,” Monk concluded.
“That’s just how it works, and how I think a player-coach relationship should be.”