Clifford, Hornets optimistic heading into season

Charlotte’s four-game preseason began this week

Hornets center Nick Richards, left, interviews guard LaMelo Ball during the team’s media day Oct. 2 in Charlotte. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

CHARLOTTE — After six days of training camp, the Charlotte Hornets’ preseason began this week when the team opened its four-game slate of exhibition matchups on Tuesday in Miami.

With just two weeks before the regular season begins, many franchise front offices offer bolder assessments of their teams’ rosters with Summer League and training camp practice in the rearview.

Charlotte coach Steve Clifford didn’t mince words last week, saying the 2023-24 Hornets is the best group of talent he has ever led.

“I’ve coached a lot of teams that are pretty good or good or whatever. I don’t think I’ve ever been the head coach of a team that was picked really high,” Clifford said. “We’re young, but to me, this is the most talented team I’ve ever coached as a head coach. Now, everything is about attitude, about how we evolve.”

Coming off an injury-plagued 27-win season in the first year of Clifford’s second tenure in Charlotte, the Hornets head into the campaign under new ownership with a relatively healthy roster.

Star point guard LaMelo Ball has been fully cleared for all basketball activities seven months after suffering a season-ending right ankle fracture, while second-year center Mark Williams has recovered from right hand surgery in June.

“I think we’re in a good spot and going the right way,” Ball said. “Everybody is here. We pretty much started this thing like three weeks ago. Everybody has been in the gym, so I feel like we’re in a good spot.”

Clifford said his tentative starting lineup for the preseason opener will be Ball, Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, PJ Washington and Williams.

The Hornets also have three rookie draft picks in camp — Brandon Miller, Amari Bailey and Nick Smith Jr. — and all eyes are on Miller.

“He is a really good competitor,” Clifford said of the second overall pick in this summer’s draft. “He is good with his teammates. He has an edge. You saw it last year (at Alabama). He likes to compete, and he has an edge when he plays. He’s far more advanced to me than guys I’ve been around in the last few years in terms of that. He’s going to be on the floor right away. He’s got size, he knows how to play, he can really pass, and he plays at both ends of the floor.”

Miller said he is enjoying the adjustment from his college days as the SEC Player of the Year to his new NBA career in Charlotte.

“(Training camp has been) what I expected, a lot faster, but I think that is just one of the things I love to play: a fast-paced game,” Miller said. “Get out in transition, get a lot of open 3s and layups, and now the midrange. I’m just really out here having fun.”

The Hornets will also get back the services of the team’s 2021-22 scoring leader, Miles Bridges, who will sit out during the preseason and be cleared to play on Nov. 17 against the Milwaukee Bucks after his 30-day suspension is served.

The 25-year-old said he has accepted being the team’s sixth man until he shakes off the rust of missing last season and works his way back into the starting lineup. Bridges missed all of 2022-23 after being arrested on domestic violence charges in July 2022.

“When Gordon first got signed here and I went to the bench, it didn’t really make a difference for me,” Bridges said. “I just want to impact the team as much as I can. I’m not worried about starting. Everything will be good this year, that’s all I know.”

Following Tuesday’s preseason opener in Miami, the Hornets will travel to Washington on Thursday for a 7 p.m. tip before returning to the Spectrum Center to face Oklahoma City on Sunday at 5 p.m.

Charlotte will conclude its preseason Oct. 19 at home against Boston at 7 p.m., just six days before the regular season tips off with an Oct. 25 home game against visiting Atlanta at 7 p.m.