MKG is again his starter two weeks out from training camp, and Clifford states that with conviction.
“MKG — everybody wants to know — he’ll start and I think he’ll have a great year,” Clifford said at a luncheon with media regularly covering the Hornets.
“Spacing is the basic tenant of offensive basketball,” Clifford said, acknowledging the former University of Kentucky star’s limited shooting range. “But it’s not as important as competitiveness, it’s not as important as character, and it’s not as important as natural talent.
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“He is a natural athlete. He has a feel for the game, he’s a tough guy who cares about the team, and I think he can be one of the top 10 defenders in the league this year.”
MKG was not that guy last season. It was no surprise he’d be limited as a shooter — he took just nine three-pointers last season, making one. He didn’t have an elite season on defense, and that is where he must shine.
Kidd-Gilchrist calls himself this team’s middle linebacker. When he is right defensively, he does have an impact on the Hornets similar to what Luke Kuechly does for the Carolina Panthers.
However, he had two severe shoulder injuries, each requiring surgery, that limited him to seven games in the 2015-16 season. Clifford anticipated Kidd-Gilchrist returning to the pure stopper status he attained by the end of his first three NBA seasons.
Clifford said he learned from watching Kidd-Gilchrist last season that a defender’s skills can get rusty from inactivity, just as a shooter can lose his rhythm over a long layoff.
The beauty of Kidd-Gilchrist, the reason they still owe him $39 million in guaranteed money, is he’s such a broad-spectrum defender. I’ve seen him guard All-NBA point guard Russell Westbrook, several power forwards who outweighed him by 30 or more pounds, and everything in-between at the wing positions.
Kidd-Gilchrist has to be all that because he will always be limited offensively. The Hornets coaches can work with his shot constantly — they do — but after five seasons in the NBA, he’s a career 20.6 percent three-point shooter on a total of 34 attempts.
That’s what makes another former Kentucky Wildcat, rookie shooting guard Malik Monk, the new flavor of the month on the Hornets’ roster. Monk is about as different from MKG as two wing players can be.
Monk rivals former Duke star Luke Kennard (now a Detroit Piston) as the best pure shooter in this draft class. In his single season at Kentucky, Monk shot 40 percent from the college three-point line, and he’s more than a jump-shooter. He’s quick, shifty and creative off the dribble. This team needs scoring, and he has the gift for doing that.
Which is why there’s a clamor already among the fan base to consider starting Monk. He was the 11th overall pick in the draft and it was at least a small surprise he lasted to the Hornets’ pick. He’s new and that makes him a sexy prospect.
That’s the plus in comparison to MKG. The minus is Monk is a bit undersized for an NBA wing player at 6-foot-3, and you didn’t see the guy apply himself all that much at the defensive end for the Wildcats.
“Everything I’ve seen is good,” Clifford said of Monk’s work habits.
“We’ve watched film; I’ve made edits of his defense in college. It won’t be okay (for him to continue guarding that way). It’s a different world and they’re going to go at him more.
“He’s a terrific athlete, he’s a prideful guy, and I’m confident we’ll figure that piece out.”
That won’t be instantaneous. Monk will learn at a pace Clifford believes he can handle, one that won’t hurt this team in the here-and-now.
And MKG starts. It’s been decided.