Malik Monk is learning. It might be his favorite word. He says he is learning from Tony Parker and Kemba Walker. He says he is learning to defend “grown men” who know the tricks of the trade. He says he is learning to vary his pace when he comes off the bench for the Charlotte Hornets, because he does not need to dial it up to flambé all the time.
“You have to know when to speed up and when to slow down,” said Monk, a 6-foot-3 shooting guard, “and I’m still learning.”
Monk, 20, did not anticipate that his first two seasons in the NBA would be so challenging, not after he was the Southeastern Conference player of the year in his only season at Kentucky and the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He is no less confident in his abilities than he once was, but he is definitely less naïve.
“I thought it would be way smoother,” he said in an interview on Tuesday before the Hornets played the Clippers at Staples Center. “I thought I was going to play right away when I first got here. I thought I was going to play right away this year, too. But it’s been a lot of ups and downs.”
His growing pains are not unique to second-year players. But there may be more organizational urgency with Monk given the Hornets’ uncertain future. Walker, their All-Star point guard and the face of the franchise, is due for unrestricted free agency this summer, and he needs more talent around him for the Hornets to be a contender. Perhaps Monk will be a part of that equation, but the clock is ticking — and it still requires some imagination to envision the player he could become.
Monk, though, offers flashes, and some of them came against the Clippers: the 36 seconds of game action he required to take and make his first three-pointer, his running floater on the following possession, even his pyrotechnic offense in garbage time. He finished with 24 points in 21 minutes in a 128-109 loss.
“He’s an explosive scorer,” said James Borrego, the team’s first-year coach.
As the Hornets (19-21) grapple for a playoff spot, Monk is averaging 10.8 points in 18.9 minutes a game while shooting 39.7 percent from the field. While he needs to become a more proficient shooter, he has more pronounced limitations on defense, where he is on the small side for a shooting guard and lacks the savvy of many of the (bigger, more experienced) players he is trying to defend.
“Man, if you’re a second late, it’s over with,” Monk said. “You can recover in college. In college, you can hide in a zone, too. But here, you get exposed. Everybody’s so good.”
At Kentucky, Monk teamed up in the backcourt with De’Aaron Fox, another immensely talented freshman who declared for the 2017 draft. Fox went fifth to the Sacramento Kings, and he has excelled this season, averaging 18 points and 7.3 assists a game while shooting 47.4 percent from the field. He starts. He plays loads of minutes. And he gets a lot of attention.
Monk and Fox are on a group chat with a couple of other former teammates at Kentucky, Monk said, and they text message each other all the time. Monk roots for Fox — “I tell him, ‘Keep killing, Fox,’ ” Monk said — but he cannot help but note the opportunity that Fox has gotten, and how much he has made of it.
“If you get down on yourself, that’s going to mess everything up,” Monk said. “So I just try to stay positive. You have to be patient, man. Patience.”
Borrego benched Monk for two games last month — the coach was frustrated with the team’s defense — but said he was pleased with Monk’s progress.
“He’s just got to be more consistent on the defensive end,” Borrego said, “and we’re seeing that growth.”
Monk’s minutes, though, have been sporadic — much as they were last season under Steve Clifford, who now coaches the Orlando Magic — and he said he was learning to adapt. Everyone wants to start, he said, but maybe he was meant to come off the bench and develop into an elite scorer like Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford, two players who have turned their reserve roles into art forms. Or maybe, Monk said, his career will take a different turn.
“There are always teams watching,” Monk said. “So, I mean, if this is not your spot, it might be somewhere else, and there’s always somebody watching — and it’s probably somebody that likes you. So you’ve got to go out there and do stuff for you and for your team. If you do both of those things together, you’ll be all right.”
Asked if he was happy in Charlotte, Monk said: “I’m playing basketball. So, yeah, I’m learning, and I’m watching the best every night. If you’re not happy doing this, I don’t know why you came to the NBA. So me playing or not, I’m still going to learn, I’m still going to smile, and I’m still going to be who I am. So I’m glad I’m in this situation.”
In their locker room at Spectrum Center, where the Hornets play their home games, Monk sits between Parker, already a legend from his days with the San Antonio Spurs, and Marvin Williams, a power forward in his 14th season. Both are consummate pros, and Monk suspects that the locker room layout was no accident.
“He’s very coachable,” Williams said. “He wants to learn, and he wants to be really good.”
Borrego described Parker as something of a big brother to Monk whenever they are on the court together with the team’s second unit.
“A lot of times Malik feels like a wild stallion,” Borrego said, “and Tony’s out there trying to keep him calmed down.”
For Monk, the lessons never stop. Michael Jordan, the team’s owner, delivered another last month when he smacked Monk on the head for prematurely celebrating a win against the Detroit Pistons. Jordan was being playful. Monk clearly cared, and that alone is worth something.