Injuries, inconsistencies hamper Hornets to start season

Charlotte lost its fifth straight game Monday

With the Hornets riddled by injuries, Kelly Oubre Jr. stepped up to lead Charlotte in scoring at 17.6 points per game until Terry Rozier’s return to the lineup. (Brandon Dill / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — After a promising 3-3 start to the 2022-23 NBA season, the Charlotte Hornets have spiraled to near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings after five consecutive losses.

A general lack of offensive firepower — Charlotte ranks 24th in the NBA in scoring — and a vicious injury bug that has already bitten five Hornets have led to a 3-8 start in the first year of coach Steve Clifford’s second stint in the Queen City.

Nothing has hampered the Hornets as much as the injury to LaMelo Ball, whose sprained ankle suffered in the preseason has kept the star point guard off the court to start the season.

To make matters worse, Gordon Hayward (shoulder) and Cody Martin (quadriceps) have both been wearing street clothes too, although all three appear to be close to returning to the Hornets’ lineup.

Thankfully for Charlotte, Terry Rozier and Dennis Smith Jr., who both suffered ankle injuries, are back on the court after missing some time.

Rozier returned to action Nov. 5 following a seven-game absence and instantly contributed with a 25-point performance in a loss to Brooklyn. Smith, who has filled in admirably for Ball during his first season in Charlotte, returned Nov. 7 but shot just 1 for 11 from the floor after starting the season with double-digit scoring efforts in six of the team’s first seven games.

Clifford pointed to his team’s struggles to score following an off day as one disturbing trend early in the season.

“That’s one of the things you have to figure out usually every year with every team,” Clifford said after Monday’s 108-100 home loss to Washington. “In Orlando, we played poorly. In Memphis, we played poorly, and these are the three games we played where we had the day off before. You play back-to-back, take a day off, and we struggle. We’re going to have to look at that and find a way to get our energy out on the days after a day off.”

Starting forward P.J. Washington, averaging a career-best 16.5 points per game, has asserted himself more to help fill the scoring void. He said he expects to see improvement once the team returns to full health.

“We haven’t played one game with everybody out there,” he said. “So for everybody out there thinking we’re just losing, whatever. We haven’t had our main guys at the end of the day. Once they get back, everything will change.”

Kelly Oubre Jr. has stepped up into the starting lineup and averaged a team-high 17.6 points per game. The eighth-year player’s on-again, off-again shooting has given the Hornets some offensive pop this season, even in the results aren’t yet there in the win column.

“We just know that there’s another level that we can get to, and that’s kind of like the bright light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “We’re going to continue to work, we’re going to continue to fight and everything’s going to turn around.”

Until the Hornets are back at full health, role players like Jalen McDaniels, Nick Richards and James Bouknight will need to pick up the slack to keep Charlotte’s season afloat.

One player who hasn’t contributed much is 15th overall pick Mark Williams. The 7-footer out of Duke totaled 13 minutes in three games before being assigned to the G League’s Greensboro Swarm on Nov. 1.

In the Swarm’s regular season opener three days later, the 20-year-old center posted 20 points and 15 rebounds and followed that with 22 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks in his second game.

If Williams can gain confidence in Greensboro, perhaps that will give him the boost he needs to adjust to the speed of the NBA. His development, along with the return of Ball and Hayward, will be crucial to turning around a season that has already veered off path just a month into the campaign.