The Charlotte Hornets had just begun to hit their stride when the NBA season was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic in early March.
Expectations weren’t very high for a Hornets team that had lost their star-player in the 2019 offseason and had begun a transition phase with their core of young players.
A breakout season from point guard Devonte’ Graham, rookie forward P.J. Washington, and guards Cody and Caleb Martin exceeding expectations, and forward Miles Bridges taking a step forward had Charlotte competing hard against some of the league’s top teams, surprising many.
Record-wise, the Hornets still sat outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture most of the year but right before the season was suspended, it looked like Charlotte was finally putting everything together, playing some of their best defensive basketball of the season and going 7-6 in their final 13 games.
“As a team, we were trending in the right direction,” Graham said. “We had just beaten Miami. For a young team like that, and they were top in the East. I think it gave us a lot of confidence moving forward and I feel like we would have took that momentum and kept going with it.”
After the All-Star break, the Hornets had one of the league’s top-10 defenses in points allowed and held the Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets, and Toronto Raptors, three of the league’s highest-scoring teams, to under 100 points during that stretch.
“We paid a lot of attention to the defensive aspect,” Bridges said. “At first everyone was just worried about offense and coach started to really preach into defense and that’s what we focused on and everyone started buying in.”
Charlotte still sat seven games back from the Orlando Magic, the east’s eighth seed, with a 23-42 record.
Unfortunately, the NBA recently approved a plan to have only the league’s top 22 teams travel to Orlando to finish out the season from July-October.
“I was definitely disappointed,” Graham said. “I was confused on why they took so many teams from the west and not the east. But like coach said, you can’t dwell on it and you can’t cry about it. You can only take that and use it as motivation. Get better, get stronger, get faster.”
Graham is a top candidate to win the Most Improved Player award at season’s end, but he wasn’t the only Hornets player to make a big jump.
Guard Terry Rozier, who signed three-year, $58 million contract last offseason, had spurts of strong play throughout the season while switching positions from a point guard to shooting guard, but he finally began to show consistency as a top-scoring player before the hiatus.
“After the All-Star break I got back and had a clear mind, was playing the right way and things were going good,” Rozier said. “It just sucks the season ended the way it did because I felt like we were going to do something special weather we made it to the playoffs or not because we would feel more confident going into next year and I really felt like it was just starting with me.”
Rozier came to Charlotte from Boston and has had the experience of making a deep playoff run with a young squad. He believes the Hornets are taking all the necessary steps to do that in the future.
“If we keep buying in, every summer you have to add a piece, being young, but as far as the guys that’s on this roster now, I think we’re just excited to get out there every night and compete and show how hard we play,” Rozier said. “I want to get us to the playoffs and let us feel that type of energy and compete.”
Even though the Hornets weren’t able to play in the final 17 games, the young core is there and they won’t let the shortened-season halt their progress.
“We have good pieces already,” Graham said. “Young talented pieces that work hard. Everybody’s got to buy in, even with everything going on. We have to lock in and focus on us. We have to start working towards what we want our future to be. If we want to be a winning organization, it’s going to start with the pieces that we already have. A big part of it is on us and the young core, who we have already to set that foundation.”
Willy Hernangomez, Dwayne Bacon and Bismack Biyombo on their pending free agency:
Hernangomez: I’m going to try and enjoy the experience and be patient. I love Charlotte. I love the group of guys that we have. I love the coaching staff. For me, I want to start to be a part of the future and the young core that we have. It’s going to be a long summer but I would definitely love to stay in Charlotte for sure.
Biyombo: It’s a different free agency but as a player, when you go into a year before free agency, if you do what you’re supposed to do, then you shouldn’t be concerned about free agency. I love Charlotte and I’d love to be back but at the end of the day, I don’t control things.
Bacon: I feel the best fit is for me to go elsewhere, honestly. I’ve been here three years, I don’t think that’s super long but I’ve been here enough through a coaching change. I have a lot of respect for Mike (Jordan) and the front office and all the guys that I’m close to but I feel that it’s best for me to present myself to a new opportunity and go somewhere else.
On the recent protests in Charlotte:
Nic Batum: We have to do something if you have this platform. We have voices to change and touch people.
I had to go. There was violence (at some protests) and maybe you can be scared of it. You never know what can happen. But you take the risk. We have to do something if you have this platform. You have to do it in a good way. You’re seeing it around the world, not just in the U.S. I want to be a part of the movement because I have a four-year-old son who is going to school. I faced racism when I grew up as a young kid, for sure, over in Europe. I want to be part of the solution for my son later so he doesn’t have to face it.
Bridges: Enough is enough. We have to voice our opinions. I don’t want to have to raise my kids in an environment where they’re hated on because of the color of their skin.
Rozier: At the end of the day I play for this city, so I felt it was only right to be down there and show my face.”
— Terry Rozier (@T_Rozzay3) June 2, 2020
Washington on his rookie season:
I think the season was huge for me. I learned a lot from our vets. Even from young guys like Miles, Devonte’ and Dwayne. Playing against great competition every night just got me a lot better.
Cody and Caleb Martin, Jalen McDaniels, Joe Chealey, Ray Spalding and Kobi Simmons on the G-League:
Cody: Going to the G-League gave me the opportunity to work on things…I played well and when I got back up, it allowed me to incorporate what I had already been working on. I was confident…a lot of that had to do with player development going from Greensboro to Charlotte, I was much more confident.
Caleb: The biggest thing I took out of this season is how much the game slowed down for me. The G-League is a big part of that. Everybody down there helped me. They helped mold my game to the point where I was able to contribute in Charlotte.
McDaniels: The Martin twins competitive spirit is at the highest level. Having them in Greensboro made everything better. We trusted each other and fed off each other. When we got called up to Charlotte, it was just like Greensboro playing with them.
Chealey: Everybody plays a role. My role was different down in the G-League and when I came up on the 10-day contract, it was completely different. I tried to embrace that and I saw up close how the NBA game works and what goes on it in terms of preparation. I got an appreciation for the coaches and the jobs that they do so well.
Spalding: The play-coach, hands-on individual work that we did was great. There’s a lot more individual work. A lot more development.
Simmons: I’ve been working on everything. Listening to the guys upstairs and focusing on everything the Hornets wanted me to work on. Learning to lead a team, develop everything I needed to develop in order to get better as a player.