Hornets’ surprising start led by Devonte’ Graham

A team expected to be tank-worthy is instead in playoff contention

Guard Devonte' Graham has been a pleasant surprise for the Hornets this season, leading Charlotte in scoring with 18.3 points per game. (Frank Franklin II / AP Photo)

What if we tried to hold a tanking, and no one messed up?

After a decidedly unpleasant offseason, the Charlotte Hornets have been one of the pleasant surprises in the NBA this season.

The Hornets lost franchise player Kemba Walker, as well as second-leading scorer Jeremy Lamb in a free agent bloodletting that left Charlotte with a young, bare-bones squad expected to be one of the worst in the NBA this season.

Instead, the Hornets have been solid — even with a blowout loss against the World Champion Raptors on Monday night, they were in position for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. They’ve been competitive — the team has a 6-8 record through 14 games with wins over Golden State, Sacramento and Indiana. And the team has been fun — the Hornets won back-to-back road games via buzzer-beater earlier this month.

There have been a number of unsung heroes for the Hornets this season, including Cody Zeller, who is averaging career-highs in points (12.4) and rebounds (8.8) so far this season. He’s also doubled his career total for 3-pointers in the first 14 games.

Rookie draft pick PJ Washington is averaging 12.5 points and 5.4 rebounds. Last year’s draft pick, Miles Bridges, has hiked his scoring average to 11.7 points (up from 7.5), and he is averaging 5.1 rebounds (up from 4.0) and 2.2 assists (up from 1.2).

The previous year’s top pick, Malik Monk, is also showing signs that he’s a keeper, averaging 9.9 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists, all career-highs, while shooting .474, 87 points higher than last year.

Dwayne Bacon is also hitting career-highs with 9.5 points and 3.0 rebounds.

The biggest breakthrough for the Hornets, however, has been a Raleigh kid who took a roundabout road back to his home state.

Devonte’ Graham played at Raleigh’s Broughton High and committed to App State. When Graham exploded as a Division I prospect, he had a two-year battle trying to get out of his commitment while coach Jason Capel fought to hold him to his letter of intent. Graham went to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire for a year to wait out the Mountaineers, and the strategy worked.

Capel was fired and the school then released Graham. He was then reportedly close to committing to NC State before Kansas swooped in and nabbed him. Graham went on to win Big 12 Player of the Year and was named a consensus first-team All-American as a senior.

The Hornets traded for Graham after he was chosen in the second round of last year’s draft. He battled injury in the preseason and split time between the Hornets and the G League’s Greensboro Swarm. He averaged 4.7 points for the big club, and, when considering ways to replace Walker on this season’s roster, it’s safe to say he was barely an afterthought.

The team acquired Terry Rozier to try to fill Walker’s shoes, and while Rozier has stepped up, averaging a career-high 16.4 points and 4.6 assists while improving his shooting from the field (.415, up from .387), he’s been second fiddle.

Coming off the bench, Graham is averaging 18.3 points and 7.0 assists. He has already scored more points (256) than he had all last season (217). He’s also already topped last season’s totals for field goals, threes and free throws.

Graham hit the buzzer-beater against the Knicks in the Garden last week, a game after Monk turned the trick against Detroit.

“He’s taken a significant jump — not just a small jump — as far as his poise, his presence, his confidence on the court,” head coach James Borrego said.

Graham credits working out over the summer for his improvement. He said he’s “five or six pounds stronger” and is better able to withstand the punishment when he drives to the basket. GM Mitch Kupchak noticed the difference in the preseason, praising the second-year guard’s increased physical play.

“Our main thing is drive kick swing,” Graham said of the team’s offensive game plan. “We’ve got to attack, get downhill and make plays for others.”

It may not last. The team could be enjoying a hot streak that tends to come along at random points throughout the season. With very little experience, the Hornets could wear down over the long NBA season. As teams get more tape on Graham and the other up-and-coming players, they’ll be able to come up with ways to counter what they’ve been doing well.

For now, however, the line of tanks has ground to a halt as Devonte’ Graham and his teammates make their stand.