There were legitimate reasons earlier this season why Charlotte Hornets rookie Malik Monk didn’t play. I don’t know that those reasons exist any longer.
The Hornets lost their fourth in a row Tuesday, 128-114 to the Philadelphia 76ers. They are six games behind the Miami Heat, plus a lost tiebreaker, in pursuit of a playoff spot, with 17 left to play. In other words, it’s over.
More specific to Monk’s situation, veteran backup point guard Michael Carter-Williams might elect to have surgery on his left shoulder, to address a sprain he suffered Sunday in Toronto. That would end Carter-Williams’ season (and quite possibly, his time with the Hornets). That moved Monk — a former University of Kentucky standout — up to Carter-Williams’ minutes Tuesday. Regardless of Carter-Williams’ decision, Monk should continue to play the rest of the way.
It’s only practical that Coach Steve Clifford and his staff spend the rest of the season exploring what the Hornets do and do not have in Monk, fellow rookie Dwayne Bacon and recently acquired center Willy Hernangomez. I’m not saying turn the last 10 games into summer league, where those three start and play 30 minutes per game. I am saying that the Hornets’ next general manager should have plenty of game minutes to examine, to determine how to proceed this offseason, regarding what youth there is on this roster.
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This roster was built around veterans, with the aspiration to have home-court advantage in the first round. For whatever reason, this team has never equaled, much less exceeded, the sum of its parts. Kemba Walker scored a season-low five points Tuesday, making just one of his nine shots, but that was an anomaly, a reflection of how hard the Hornets have had to ride the two-time All-Star this season.
Carter-Williams was signed to a one-season, $2.7 million contract, which describes a temp by NBA standards. He’s played that way: A decent defender, and unreliable offensive player. There is no position where the Hornets need more help than depth behind Walker at the point.
That alone is reason to play Monk more than the 74 total minutes he logged between Jan. 11 and Tuesday. That’s not because he was the 11th pick; minutes should be earned, not bestowed. But if it’s no longer viable to make the playoffs, then at least employ this for exploration and experimentation.
Clifford has admonished himself previously for over-complicating what he asked Monk to do as a point guard earlier this season (which was pretty much a disaster). So after Carter-Williams was ruled out for Tuesday’s game, Clifford met with Monk, saying he wouldn’t be calling a lot of offensive sets. Instead, he told Monk to lean heavily on pick-and-rolls, and do what comes naturally: Attack. He did so immediately Tuesday, going to the rim to score a layup over Sixers star center Joel Embiid.
That ignited a cheer from the crowd at Spectrum Center, one of the few not directed at the Sixers. But then Monk missed seven of his next nine shots. Certainly, this is a work-in-progress: He’s made four of his last 23 attempts.
Still, Clifford was encouraging Tuesday when asked to review Monk’s performance postgame.
“I thought he did a good job; we were organized when he was on the floor,” Clifford said of Monk’s 15 1/2 minutes. “We’ll watch the film and see where he can grow, but I thought he played fine.”
Monk was always going to have a challenge this season because his body, at 6-3 and 200 pounds, isn’t suited to defending NBA shooting guards, the position he played in college. Clifford believes Monk has to play both guard spots to have his best chance of excelling at the NBA level.
It was no small impediment to Monk’s development that he missed Orlando summer league and the rest of the preparation time leading up to his first NBA training camp, due to a sprained ankle. That certainly slowed his development, and with the constancy of games in the NBA schedule, practice is far from ideal for a rookie to catch up.
The good news: Monk is an extremely confident individual, and the past few months haven’t dented his faith in himself.
“I’m a basketball player, I don’t get nervous,” Monk said. “I’ve been waiting to play (at the NBA level) my whole life.”
There are some basic corrections still to be made, whether it’s better fighting through picks or being more selective with his shots (he’s 32 percent from the field and 33 percent from three-point range, so Tuesday was no outlier), or finding open teammates when he’s at the point. He’s not oblivious to all that.
“I’ve had ‘Oh, wow!’ (moments). I’ve seen that, and tried to fix it every day,” Monk said. “I’m learning every day, whether I’m playing or not. I’m trying to learn from Kemba and all the great guards here. It’s pretty decent right now. It could be better, but I’m just learning.”
That learning appears headed into a different stage now.
“I’m ready,” Monk said, “whenever they throw me out there.”
Sounds like that won’t be so sporadic going forward.