I don’t know whether Dwayne Bacon’s performance Friday in Philadelphia will significantly change the Charlotte Hornets’ rotation. Coach James Borrego might not know quite yet.
That’s not precisely the point.
Bacon, a second-round pick in 2017, gave the new coach a nice complication with his 15 points in 23 minutes off the bench. This was Bacon’s first meaningful playing time this season, but it was not the first time Bacon’s potential resonated with Borrego.
“He’s putting pressure on me to put him out there,” Borrego said after practice Saturday in suburban Detroit. “Where we go from here, I don’t quite know yet, but his job is to continue to put pressure on me to play him.”
The Hornets play the Pistons Sunday afternoon. They are 6-6 following Friday’s overtime loss to the 76ers, in which the Hornets came back from as much as 21 points down to lead in the fourth quarter.
Bacon had totaled 27 minutes in four game appearances this season prior to Friday. There was no epiphany at work: Borrego just played a hunch late in the first half, with the Hornets already trailing by 17, that he should shake something up.
Bacon looked OK in 4 1/2 first-half minutes. Then, 3 1/2 minutes into the third quarter and trailing by 18, Borrego pulled all five of his starters. Bacon replaced small forward Nic Batum, who never played the rest of the game. Power forward Marvin Williams, subbed out for rookie Miles Bridges, played just 8 seconds the rest of the game.
“He was a major part of that turnaround in the third and fourth quarters,” Borrego said of Bacon. “His ability to get to the rim, to defend, to play with physicality; he did everything we ask him to do.”
It was inevitable, as the Hornets’ roster was configured heading into training camp, that a small forward or shooting guard with the talent to play would sit, barring injuries. It was justifiable that Bacon, the 40th pick out of Florida State two drafts ago, started the season as that guy.
Batum, Jeremy Lamb and Malik Monk all have more experience and skill than Bacon, and rookie Bridges demonstrated so much potential in the preseason that Borrego had to find him minutes.
This is not a bad thing. You want players outside an NBA team’s rotation good enough to raise the level of competition at practice and to have the coach’s confidence in the event of injury to others. (Lamb has a groin strain, but is listed as probable to play Sunday).
What wouldn’t work is expanding the rotation. An ideal NBA rotation is nine players, and a coach can figure it out playing 10. More than that, and it becomes chaotic with individual players not getting enough game minutes to develop a rhythm and confidence.
“Right now we’re a little log-jammed at those positions,” Borrego said of small forward and shooting guard. “Those guys haven’t made it easy, because they’re playing pretty well, too. If he adds on to what he did (Friday) night, (Bacon) has a chance to be in our rotation.”
Bacon isn’t as good a scorer as Monk, or a shooter as Lamb or a passer as Batum. However, he provides something none of them do. One of Borrego’s favorite buzz words is “physicality,” and Bacon is built for that. At 6-foot-7 and 221 pounds, he has the build of an NFL linebacker or heavyweight boxer.
He’s in touch with that, as are the coaches. The skill the staff most wanted to refine in Bacon over the summer was his finishing at the rim with either hand because it’s inevitable he’ll get there based on his muscle and leaping ability.
“They like me getting downhill,” Bacon said, using a football term for straight-line power. “When I got into that game, that’s what I started off with -getting downhill. I got to the basket and ended up getting two easy (Sixers) fouls. The game just came from there, and I hit a couple of mid-rangers, a couple of open 3-pointers.
“I know how to play this game.”
For Bacon, the first 10 games were about staying engaged without the reward of playing time. He says that hasn’t been particularly difficult in part because it’s what he experienced last season as a rookie
“It’s not like your first year out of college where you’re just jumping out of playing a lot of minutes,” Bacon said. “It teaches you a lot. It humbles you, but it also motivates you to keep working. I’m in a steady process of working. I’m never going to give up on anything.”
Living those words got Borrego’s attention.
“He’s hungry. He’s ready,” Borrego said.
“He’s a part of our future.”