The Hornets have prioritized player development significantly in recent years and continue to do so. Just two years ago, James Borrego stated that player development was the “lifeblood of the organization.” This was a sentiment he frequently resounded throughout his first few years as head coach. While the Hornets are playoff hopefuls entering the 2021-22 season, those very sentiments of player development are still deep-rooted into the foundation of this Hornets franchise.
We have seen several players find success through the Hornets’ talent pipeline between Charlotte and Greensboro. It starts with Jay Hernandez, who oversaw the team’s player development for years, along with Nick Friedman, who served as the team’s Two-Way Player Development Coach for two seasons prior to his promotion to assistant coach this past offseason. It was a significant priority and an obligation no one took lightly.
The fruits of their labor have continued to flourish with players like Devonte’ Graham, Dwayne Bacon, Cody Martin, Caleb Martin, and now Nick Richards - just to name a few - who all found immense success in the team’s development program. Though G-league assignment to Greensboro was never the most marvelous task, every one of those aforementioned players progressed in “The G” with a sole focus on development that would immediately transfer to the NBA floor.
For many guys, their time on G-League assignment would make or break their NBA career. For some, they looked at it as punishment, a demotion. But for others, they used it to their advantage and it set them on a trajectory to survive in such a competitive league that sees players come and go in the blink of an eye.
For the first time during his tenure as the Hornets’ general manager, Charlotte’s roster consists entirely of players that were either drafted, acquired, or signed by Mitch Kupchak. From the mess of a roster that he inherited - full of gut-wrenching contracts, thanks to Rich Cho - Kupchak has done a phenomenal job transforming this roster into what it is today.
Kupchak’s roster is young - with six players being 21-years-old or younger - but it’s also equally balanced with steady veterans who help keep the ship afloat as the young guys go through their inevitable growing pains.
James Borrego’s rotation will consist of nine, sometimes ten players on any given night so that leaves seven to eight players (including Two-Way players) that won’t see action on a regular basis. Of those sub-21-year-olds, only one of them will be in the Hornets’ usual rotation. Obviously it's LaMelo Ball. That means, the other five, Vernon Carey Jr., JT Thor, James Bouknight, Kai Jones, and Scottie Lewis (Two-Way Contract) will all be out of the rotation - barring an injury - and will all likely spend time in Greensboro playing for the Swarm in some capacity.
During Kupchak’s media availability Wednesday prior to team's season opener, he talked at length about the significance of his young players utilizing the G-League.
“I hope that our young players - especially the ones that don’t play - continue to get development work in Greensboro so that we can build something that we can sustain going forward.”
The Hornets’ lack of an interior presence is visibly alarming when you watch them play. Kupchak is wholly cognizant of that and that’s why he's drafted three young talented bigs over the past two years that could potentially contribute future minutes to the team.
“We have players in this system at some point that can do that and help us,” the Hornets’ general manager said Wednesday. “Nick Richards certainly can rim protect. Kai Jones can rim protect and Vernon Carey can do it. But they’re young players that may or may not get on the court this year. We will have to wait and see.”
With P.J. Washington operating as the team’s backup center at the moment, you have to assume that at some point Nick Richards will get some burn. When Charlotte plays bigger, more physical teams that Washington would struggle to provide any sort of resistance against, all things seem to indicate that Richards is the next man up. But even then, Richards could value more from getting some live reps in Greensboro once their season kicks off while he looks from the outside in on the Hornets’ rotation.
Kupchak was consistent with his comments Wednesday, stating how he was not sure how often those young bigs would see meaningful NBA minutes.
‘I’m not sure how much Nick Richards, Kai Jones, and Vernon Carey will actually get in games this year… Nick Richards played some minutes during the preseason. I say he made a big jump from last year. He’s gotten better. Vernon Carey will continue to work and improve. And I like our rookies but they are rookies and I just don’t know how often they will get into the game.”
This foreshadows G-League assignments for the three bigs he mentioned as well as James Bouknight who seems to be the most polished of the group.
Bouknight displayed flashes of a high-flying, explosive, shot-creator during the preseason. The UConn product is someone who could clearly provide a spark off the bench for Charlotte but the transition from college to the NBA is nothing short of drastic.
“[James Bouknight] is pretty much what we thought he’d be,” Kupchak said. “He’s talented. He’s shown in preseason that he’s not going to have a problem scoring in this league. The NBA pace - especially the way we try to play - is an adjustment to him.”
Mitch Kupchak saw those flashes during the preseason but knows that this transition does not happen overnight. It’s a process.
“Coming out of UConn, like a lot of kids that are good in college, the offense was focused on them,” Kupchak explained. “They have the ability to create, probe, slow the game down, speed it up at their will. But at this level, it’s a little bit of an adjustment. We don’t depend on one player to create the pace for us. And we do want to play a game that’s fast and up and down. So that’s an adjustment for him. But I believe in him. He’s young.”
James Borrego and Kupchak have recognized that you have to have patience and allow time for these young players to properly develop but most importantly, you have to equip them with an environment that facilitates growth and development. That environment for James Bouknight, Kai Jones, Vernon Carey, and Nick Richards may not be with the Hornets in Charlotte all year long. They’ll need to fully embrace the opportunity that’s in front of them and go down to Greensboro and put in the work.
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