Ex-Cats

‘He’s not afraid of the moment.’ Malik Monk’s turning the corner for Hornets.

Former UK guard Malik Monk on recent development in Charlotte

Hornets guard Malik Monk on his recent development.
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Hornets guard Malik Monk on his recent development.

Malik Monk is coming after Jeremy Lamb’s starting job as the Charlotte Hornets’ shooting guard.

That might not happen the rest of this season, but the former University of Kentucky star’s progress is important for reasons that go beyond the obvious. Lamb becomes an unrestricted free agent in July, and I’m guessing the odds are no better than 50-50 he’ll be back with the Hornets. So Monk’s rapid improvement of late, and the impression it has left on coach James Borrego, feels consequential.

“The kid is turning the corner, and I don’t want to see him satisfied with this,” Borrego said after Monk scored 18 points — 14 of those in the fourth quarter — of Saturday’s home victory over the Chicago Bulls.

That was the second night in a row when Monk went off in the fourth quarter of a close game. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the final quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday.

“What’s special, and will continue to be special about him, is the fourth-quarter confidence: Swagger, if you want to call it that,” Borrego said. “He’s not afraid of the moment. He’s willing to take the big shot and make the big play.”

None of that is a surprise. The Hornets invested the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft on Monk because he was such a dynamic scorer during much of his only college season at Kentucky. Ability to put the ball through the hoop and that swagger Borrego described have never been in question.

It’s all the other aspects of Monk’s job — defense, playmaking for others offensively and general on-court decision-making — that have held him back over much of his first 1 1/2 NBA seasons.

Defense, communication

Monk is never going to resemble Philadelphia 76er Jimmy Butler or Golden State Warrior Klay Thompson as a perimeter defender. But he doesn’t have to be a clear liability, either. Borrego sees progress of late that allows him to play Monk more in crunch time.

Remember, the Hornets’ margin for error against any NBA opponent this season is small, so there is not a lot of room for on-the-job training. It’s on Monk to prove he can survive enough defensively to stay on the court.

Hearing Borrego praise Monk’s defense was more significant than talk of his alpha-male swagger.

“Defensively, he was moving all over the place (on Saturday). He was locked in defensively, giving us great energy,” Borrego said. “I want him to keep going, keep growing, but we’re seeing the effects of what Malik can do for our ball club.”

Some others who interviewed for the job Borrego got, replacing Steve Clifford as Hornets coach, say team management emphasized Monk’s development as a top priority. As a rookie, Monk tried Clifford’s patience with inconsistent defense and offensive decision-making last season. Borrego might be more open-minded about finding ways to use Monk, but that doesn’t give him a pass for addressing flaws.

One of the small, but useful, changes Borrego made was not asking Monk to try to be a point guard. Almost all the 6-3 Monk’s minutes this season have been at shooting guard, and much of that time he’s been paired with point guard Tony Parker, an 18-year NBA veteran and future Hall of Famer.

Tutoring sessions

Borrego says part of Parker’s role is keeping Monk on track. Monk has said repeatedly that Parker has been huge in teaching him about basketball nuance. An indicator of progress: Monk learning the worth of chatter on defense.

“He’s (now) one of our most vocal guys defensively, believe it or not,” Borrego said. “He’s engaged, he understands what we’re trying to accomplish, and that part of the game is slowing down for him at the defensive end.”

The offensive end, too.

“He’s not just out there to score for us, he’s out there to play-make,” Borrego said. “He’s not attacking every single time he touches it, he’s picking his spots when to attack. Tony is a part of that. “

Monk sees opportunity, and is beginning to do what he just couldn’t process as a rookie.

“It’s me being in the gym a lot and coach trusting me,” Monk said. “He put his trust in me, and I’ve got to keep doing what I’ve been doing.”

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