Young Hornets look to end postseason drought

Charlotte hopes to take another step forward in its rebuild

Point guard LaMelo Ball and the Hornets open their season Wednesday looking to end a four-year playoff drought. (Matt Kelley / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — Looking to avoid a fifth straight season outside the playoffs and win their first playoff series since 2002, the Charlotte Hornets are hungrier than ever to reach the postseason after experiencing intermittent success last season.

The Hornets open their season at home Wednesday against the visiting Indiana Pacers hoping to resemble the team that climbed up to fourth place in the Eastern Conference rather than the one that skidded to a 10th-place finish and 33-39 record last season.

“When you look at last year in a vacuum, it felt like three seasons in one really,” Hornets coach James Borrego said last week. “With the amount of protocols, to the ups, downs and the injuries, it took a toll on every team. … I think now we can breathe a little bit and get settled a little more and find some normalcy.”

Charlotte’s fate will undoubtedly rest on the shoulders of second-year point guard LaMelo Ball, who joined Larry Johnson (1991-92) and Emeka Okafor (2004-05) as the only players in franchise history to be selected as NBA Rookie of the Year.

The No. 3 pick in the 2020 Draft lived up to his billing, posting 15.7 points, 6.1 assists and 5.9 rebounds per game, and he drew stylistic comparisons to legends Magic Johnson and Jason Kidd before missing 21 games in late March and most of April with a fractured wrist.

Joining Ball in the Hornets’ backcourt once again is Terry Rozier, who is coming off his best season to date with a team-high 20.4 points per game along with 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists. The seventh-year shooting guard was rewarded by the Hornets front office in August with a four-year, $97-million contract extension that will keep him wearing teal and purple until 2026.

Due to Rozier’s increased production on the court, Charlotte parted ways with guards Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk over the offseason. To help add some depth at the shooting guard position, the Hornets selected UConn’s James Bouknight with the 11th pick in the 2021 draft.

Also coming in is veteran point guard Ish Smith. The Concord native and Wake Forest alumnus signed as a free agent in the summer and returns home to play for his league record-tying 12th different NBA team.

The biggest question mark for the Hornets is the availability of Gordon Hayward. Now in his second year with Charlotte and 12th season overall, the 2017 All-Star small forward is a proven shooting threat but also prone to injuries — he’s missed 149 of his last 318 regular season games. He posted 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game last year but was out the final six weeks with a sprained foot.

Offseason addition Kelly Oubre Jr. should be able to step in if Hayward’s health becomes an issue again. The versatile, 6-foot-7, 203-pounder has the skillset to play multiple positions and might be the team’s best perimeter defender.

The expanding role of fourth-year power forward Miles Bridges — now the Hornets’ longest-tenured player — and his growing chemistry with Ball was one of the team’s most encouraging storylines last year. Midway through March, Bridges’ stock began to rise with energetic performances coming off the bench. He elevated his 3-point shot rate to 40% — after making 32.8% in his first two seasons — and flourished as one of the league’s premier dunkers.

Third-year forward P.J. Washington will start the season coming off the bench after starting 118 of his first 122 career games. The No. 12 draft pick from the 2019 draft averaged 12.9 points and 6.5 rebounds last season — both slight increases over his rookie campaign — but struggled with on-court. Washington is still likely to receive more than 20 minutes per game switching between the power forward and center positions.

Newcomer Mason Plumlee will begin the season as the team’s starter at center, instantly picking up the big-man role that Cody Zeller played for eight seasons. Plumlee, who won a national title at Duke in 2010 as a freshman with the Blue Devils, nearly averaged a double-double with Detroit last year, but he could be used more for rim protection and setting screens with Charlotte.

The Hornets won just one of four preseason games, ending with a historically lopsided 127-59 loss to Dallas on Oct. 13 in which Charlotte’s lack of depth was evident.

“I think this one is certainly on the players and us not showing up and approaching it as professionals,” Plumlee said. “So we just got to get better this week and come ready on opening night.”

Bridges responded to the loss on Twitter with a simple message: “Go head get y’all jokes out now while y’all can.”

Charlotte is a young team that’s full of raw talent and athleticism, but the Hornets will need to overcome their inexperience if it wants to be more than an exciting to team watch and finally end its playoff drought.