With the Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls all taking a step back this season, the Charlotte Hornets appeared poised to take advantage and make a return to the playoffs. But with Thursday’s news that shooting guard Nicolas Batum will miss at least six-to-eight weeks with a torn ligament in his left elbow, Charlotte will be without one of the key elements expected to smooth the transition to a new lineup featuring Dwight Howard.
As detailed in Basketball Insiders’ season preview for the Hornets, Batum’s ability to make those around him better is a major key for Charlotte and made him valuable last season despite an offensive downturn. Howard is about a third more efficient as a roll man in pick-and-rolls than as a scorer in post isolation. Batum gives the Hornets a pick-and-roll ball handler to supplement starting point guard Kemba Walker. He also gave the team a better chance to seamlessly integrate Howard before this latest injury setback threw Charlotte’s season into chaos.
“He just got tangled up,” said coach Steve Clifford of Batum’s injury after a Thursday practice at Spectrum Center in Charlotte. “It was one of those contact kind of collision plays where his arm got stuck between two guys. He was in a lot of pain.”
On the positive side of the ledger for Charlotte is that both of the players who will be counted on to step up in Batum’s absence — sixth-year shooting guard Jeremy Lamb and rookie combo guard Malik Monk — have shown hugely positive signs through two preseason games. Lamb led the Hornets with 17 points and added eight rebounds and three assists in the opener against Boston. He followed up with 18 points in Detroit Wednesday at the new Little Ceasars Arena that was only eclipsed by Monk’s 19. Clifford said he was glad both players were ready to step into elevated roles.
“It’s different when you know you’re going to start or you’re coming in at this time,” said Clifford. “They both had great readiness and obviously they both played really well.”
Clifford added that he was pleased with Lamb’s work on both ends of the court and sees his early success as a natural progression for a player entering his third season with Charlotte.
“He played well in Boston and then last night I thought he was really, really good,” said Clifford. “His defense was good last night, too. This has been a steady amount of work since he’s gotten here. And the more he’s worked, the more he sees how his hard work is paying dividends. This summer he notched it up even more and he has a confidence level, and now it’s all paying off for him.”
Lamb acknowledged that strong performances in the preseason don’t mean as much, but still took positives away.
“It was a good feeling,” said Lamb. “Even though it’s the preseason and it doesn’t count it’s still a building block for us. That second game we definitely buckled down in the second half. We’ve got to put together full games.”
For Monk, who missed all of NBA Summer League and hadn’t played a real game since the NCAA Tournament, he said it felt “amazing” to finally get back on the court. He also acknowledged that defense at the NBA level will be his biggest learning curve.
“You’ve got to be quick,” said Monk. “You’ve got to be there early or you’re going to get beat. You’re playing against grown men. They know their spots and they’re super smart.”
Monk added that his crunch time scoring (12 points in the fourth quarter) against Detroit was just part of his DNA as a player.
“That’s the time to step up,” said Monk. “You always dream about that, but that’s when I step up the most.”
Lamb said he likes what he sees from Charlotte’s prized rookie.
“I feel like he plays like me,” said Lamb of Monk. “He can score many different ways. He can shoot, he gets to the rim, he has a floater. He can really score the ball and he knows how to play.”
While Lamb and Monk adapt to greater roles, Clifford said he was happy to have a preseason schedule featuring well-organized opponents to challenge his team.
“We’re playing five games against teams with very high execution,” said Clifford of a preseason schedule that includes a home-and-home with the Celtics, a trip to Miami to face the HEAT and a visit from the Mavericks. “They’re all teams that [are] going to get to the next action quickly and they’re very disciplined about what they do. Those are the teams you want to play. They’re hard to score against and they’re hard to guard, so I think it gives us a better chance to make progress.”
The loss of Batum is a terrible blow to the Hornets, but so far it’s been next man up with Lamb ready to shoulder some of the scoring burden and Monk accustomed to playing with the ball in his hands. Integrating Howard will remain a challenge without the steadying influence of the veteran Batum. But it’s not all doom and gloom for the Hornets with young players ready to step in and help Charlotte take the next step.