Coming off their one-game trip to Paris and heading into Tuesday night’s home game against the New York Knicks, the Charlotte Hornets stood at 15-31 — 12th place in the Eastern Conference and 4.5 games behind Brooklyn for the eighth and final playoff spot.
Second-year coach James Borrego’s Hornets have also dropped eight straight, with the team’s last win coming at Dallas on Jan. 4.
All of that makes for what sounds like another lost season in Charlotte in what is starting to look like a fourth straight season out of the playoffs.
But there are reasons for optimism in Buzz City, where a couple of the team’s recent draft picks have emerged as cornerstone pieces for the team’s future.
The Raleigh native had to bide his time, but with Kemba Walker gone Graham has emerged as the Hornets’ top scorer and biggest hope.
A second-round pick by the Hawks out of Kansas who was quickly flipped to Charlotte, Graham split time between the Hornets, G League and trainer’s room in his first pro season but has been a force through 46 games.
Graham leads the Hornets in scoring (18.6 points per game) and assists (7.6 per game) while playing a team-high 35.1 minutes a night — which ranks among the top 15 in the NBA. He has 13 double-doubles on the year and nearly had his first career triple-double on Dec. 27, finishing with 15 points, 13 assists and nine rebounds in a 104-102 loss to Oklahoma City.
Most importantly, both Borrego and Graham know the 24-year-old is the Hornets’ catalyst — a role the player has embraced.
“It’s a lot of responsibility, so I know I’ve got to bring it every night,” Graham told The Athletic. “If I come out sluggish, it kind of trickles down.”
Borrego has had to start countering teams’ game-planning against Graham while making sure he doesn’t overwork his young guard.
“He’s got to guard and he’s got to go produce for us offensively,” the coach said. “So making sure I’m keeping him fresh and rested, not overusing him as we go, that’s going to help him and his efficiency as well.”
Charlotte hasn’t exactly had success drafting frontcourt players — be it as the Bobcats or Hornets. Emeka Okafor, Adam Morrison, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Frank Kaminsky were all lottery picks, and none fulfilled their potential.
The Hornets are hoping P.J. Washington breaks that trend.
The Hornets selected the Kentucky forward with the 12th overall pick in June’s draft, and thus far Washington has proven a good fit in Charlotte.
Washington’s numbers through 41 games confirm what many thought of the 6-foot-7 forward heading into the draft: He’s a player with no glaring holes to his game but also no dominant traits. Washington has averaged 12.4 points and 5.4 rebounds while shooting .480 from the field — including 41% from 3-point range.
That’s not an indictment of Washington because what the Hornets need right now is a solid foundation as they transition from an aging — and overpriced — frontcourt to a younger and more versatile one.
Surgery on a fractured finger cost him five games game in mid-December, but Washington has scored in double digits in nine of 13 games since he returned to the lineup, including recording two of his four double-doubles on the season in the past three weeks.
Perhaps the most impressive part of a trying difficult season has been the way Borrego has managed his roster. Many coaches alienate veteran players when a franchise commits to a rebuild, but Borrego has deftly managed the Hornets’ egos by incorporating all of his players into the game plan on given nights.
It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“J.B. has been very straight-forward,” veteran Marvin Williams told the Charlotte Observer of his coach. “I feel like he has made us older guys a part of this thing as well.”
It helps that Borrego learned some valuable lessons while coaching under Gregg Popovich, the Spurs coach and a future Hall of Famer.
“When you’re transparent, it builds genuine trust,” Borrego said of how he manages his players. “Not the fake trust that is running around a lot of the NBA. I learned this from one of the best: The easiest thing is just to bull—- somebody and get your way through. Try to pacify. … I’d rather deal with it head-on.”
Despite the team’s struggles, Borrego has navigated that tricky aspect of the continuing rebuild and been supported by his players.
“I feel like he can go to sleep knowing that in this situation, the veterans have his back,” Williams said.