Terry Rozier, Dennis Smith Jr. and Nick Richards pictured during a home game against the Orlando Magic. Photo courtesy of the Charlotte Hornets

Sunday’s 106-95 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers marked the end of the Charlotte Hornets’ season and another year without a playoff appearance.

The team had moderate expectations ahead of the year. Analysts expected the team to make a postseason run after making the play-in tournament the last two seasons.

The Hornets faced problems last offseason. The team missed out on resigning restricted free agent Miles Bridges following an alleged domestic violence incident with the mother of his kids. Bridges remains a free agent as the league continues to investigate the case.

Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson reneged on his offer to become the Hornets’ head coach to rejoin the defending NBA champions. Charlotte turned to a familiar face in Steve Clifford, the team’s former head coach, to fill the position.

Injuries were a major factor in the team’s 27-55 record this season. 

The team has lost key players — LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Cody Martin and Kelly Oubre Jr.

Clifford continued to keep the team competitive, even with role players taking over the starting lineup.

The last few months have shown that fans can be optimistic about the future. Here’s why: 

Development of young players

Charlotte hasn’t been a top free-agent destination for star NBA players since the team joined the league in 1988.

General Manager Mitch Kupchiak said he understands that.

“I don’t think that is something that we can bank on as a small market team — I just don’t,” Kupchak told the Associated Press in February. “The way we are going to get better is through the draft and player development. And then if we get lucky, make a couple savvy trades. … We are a small market team, and we have to look at the world a little differently.”

The team pushed for a youth movement during the trade deadline by trading away veteran center Mason Plumlee.

The Hornets have long been searching for its franchise big man, and the trade made way for rookie Mark Williams to prove why he should be that man.

Williams has averaged 11.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and at least one block per game since taking over the starting role after the All-Star Game. 

He has been a big defensive presence in the paint. The Hornets are 5.2 points better defensively with him on the court.

The trade also provided more minutes for third-year big man Nick Richards.

Richard has averaged career highs of 7.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 18 minutes a game. This helped earn him a 3-year, $15 million extension last month.

Injuries have provided more play time for players from the Greensboro Swarm, the Hornets’ G-League affiliate. Players like rookie Bryce McGowens along with second-year players James Bouknight, J.T. Thor and Kai Jones have taken advantage of increased minutes late in the season.

Bouknight and McGowens have both showcased their scoring ability. Bouknight has been a spark off the bench.

McGowens has made arguably the biggest strides in the group.

He appeared in 46 games and started the last six. He had a career-high 22 points to go with four rebounds against Cleveland Sunday afternoon.

Jones has rotated in as a forward and center. His athleticism has wowed the crowd through fastbreaks and putback dunks.  

He has the ability to be the perfect roller in a pick-and-roll set if he can finish at the rim, something he’s shown flashes of in the season’s final weeks.

Thor has also showcased his improved three-point shot, shooting 32.5 percent compared to 26 last season. 

Finding Defensive Success

In the 2021-22 season, the Hornets were amongst the league’s worst teams defensively, ranking 25th in points allowed, 27th in rebounds allowed, and 27th in defensive rebounds. 

Their struggles continued this season and only got worse after losing the team’s top defender, Cody Martin, to quad and knee injuries. 

But since the All-Star Break, the Hornets peaked with a 110.6 defensive rating (The number of points allowed per 100 possessions by a team).

That is an impressive stat considering nearly half of their games since the break has come against top-10 offenses.

A large part of that success starts with how the team has defended the opponent’s three-point shooting. Teams have shot just 31.6% from deep against them since the All-Star break, making them third in the league in that defensive category.

Former lottery pick Dennis Smith Jr. is a key factor in that stat. Smith has become a journeyman since being drafted seventh in the 2017 NBA draft to Dallas.  Offensive struggles have been his biggest knock, bouncing to his fourth team at 25.

He’s had a career resurgence since arriving in Charlotte last offseason, primarily due to his defensive play. 

He has held his own against the likes of James Harden (held to 11 points on Mar.17) and  CJ McCollum (shot 42% from the field on Mar.23), among others. 

“He changes things with his ball pressure. He’s a terrific competitor,” said Steve Clifford following the win against San Antonio in March.

Smith and Williams have been driving forces on the defense. Smith is on a one-year deal, so Charlotte should look to re-sign him this offseason.

Hope for the future 

The Hornets have the fourth-worst record in the league standings behind the Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs.

None of these respective fan bases are proud of their teams’ performance, but they are eager for the potential consolation prize: the first-overall pick in this year’s draft.

That pick would certainly be Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 forward from France who can dribble and shoot.

NBA Analysts viewed him as a generational talent that could change the fortunes of any franchise, solely on his potential.

Since the 2019 draft, the NBA changed the lottery odds (the bottom three teams will all have an equal 14% chance of winning the top pick) and increased the number of teams selected in the lottery from three to four.

The Hornet would instantly have one of the most dynamic duos with him and star LaMelo Ball if they secure the top pick and draft Wembanyama.

If the Hornets miss out on the first pick, they will still have a top selection to draft a player who can provide an immediate impact.

Jalon is a general assignment reporter for QCity Metro. He is a graduate of North Carolina Central University and an avid sports fan. (jalon@qcitymetro.com)

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