Hornets show inconsistency, potential in early preseason

Charlotte dropped its first two exhibition games

Gordon Hayward scored a combined 25 points in his first two exhibition games with the Hornets since signing a four-year, $120 million contract. (Chris Carlson / AP Photo)

The Charlotte Hornets have rebuilt their roster over the offseason and are considered a fringe playoff contender. The rosiest projections have the Hornets competing for a spot in the play-in tournament for the final few postseason spots. Darker forecasts have the team struggling with youth and a lack of size and headed back to the lottery.

The first two preseason looks at the team gave some idea of what to expect. Of course, it’s still early, and the Hornets have only faced the Toronto Raptors so far.

“I love playing against Toronto because they’re a very good defense,” said Hornets coach James Borrego after the second game of the preseason-opening home-and-home. “They’re physical, they’re in the paint, they force you to kick out. I couldn’t ask for a better team to tune us up for the season than Toronto.”

Early returns on Ball

Third overall pick LaMelo Ball made his preseason debut, giving fans their first look at the team’s point guard of the future — thought by many to be the prize of this year’s NBA Draft.

It took him awhile to find his sea legs. Ball went 0-for-5 in his first game, including 0 for 3 from three. He was able to contribute in other areas, however, grabbing a team-high 10 rebounds and dishing out four assists.

“I thought it was a good performance,” Borrego said of Ball’s debut. “First time out there, and he looks like he belongs. I thought he was solid tonight. Made some really good plays, some good reads. He’s talking, he’s communicating. I thought, overall, a solid performance to start.”

Ball hit his first NBA shot in the rematch, going 3 of 10 from the field and 2 of 6 from three. He had three rebounds and two assists.

While Ball shows promise, there’s obviously room for improvement. He’s turned the ball over seven times in two games, and his plus/minus is a -18 through the two contests. He’s had some highlight-reel plays, however, including some impressive lobs for dunks by teammates, a behind-the-back pass for an assist, and a stare down of the Toronto bench after hitting a three. While the season will have its ups and downs, Ball promises to be a must-watch player.

The other newcomers

Gordon Hayward has been as advertised, scoring 25 points in the two games and providing an outside shooting threat.

Former Duke Blue Devil Vernon Carey Jr., a second-round pick, scored three points in the first game but was limited to a minute of playing time in the rematch. Fellow second-rounder Grant Riller also had three points in the preseason opener but had a DNP in the second game. Nick Richards has gotten the longest look among the second-round picks, scoring seven points in the two games.

Better than expected

The Hornets have outrebounded Toronto in both games, an area where Charlotte was expected to struggle this season. Ball, an extremely tall point guard, looks like he’ll be able to crash the boards and contribute. Returning Hornets frontcourt players Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington and Cody Zeller have also been among the rebounding leaders in the early going. Bridges and Washington have also shown a shot-blocking presence for the team.

Worse than expected

Ball’s turnovers are just the tip of the iceberg for the team’s ball security issues. Charlotte turned it over 22 times in the opener.

“Turnovers are always a concern,” Borrego said. “It’s something that we’re targeting this year. We have to win the possession game. Obviously, this was not the start we wanted as far as protecting the ball and valuing the basketball. I think it’s a number of things — sloppiness, poor spacing, not knowing each other, playing at a high pace and (Toronto’s) physicality. That’s just not going to get it done. That’s not going to be winning basketball for us.”

The team didn’t respond the way Borrego had hoped. Charlotte committed 25 turnovers for 36 Raptors points in the rematch.

“We have to clean up the turnover game,” Borrego said, “but I love what I’m seeing with the ball movement and decision-making right now—a competitive group, a feisty group, a together group. They’re absorbing quite a bit right now and we’ve thrown a lot at them conceptually on both ends of the floor and they’ve been able to handle it. This is a high basketball IQ team.”

Up and down

The NBA is always a game of runs, but Charlotte could be the embodiment of that this season as the inconsistent Hornets can put things together for brief spurts, then look out of sync as opponents rally. Charlotte had a 22-0 run to build a 19-point lead in the opener, only to give it all back. The Hornets also led in the second game before Toronto rallied.

Clearly, the young team has a lot of learning ahead of it, but the Hornets promise to be exciting along the way.