We’re back with another edition of the Hive Dive, a biweekly series analyzing trends and narratives in the Charlotte Hornets that go deeper than just results. Today, we’re talking about the Hornets bench players that have improved, impressed, and impelled the team to a stellar start.
Past two weeks:
Record: 5-3 (5-3 overall, 7th in the East)
10/20 vs IND – W 123-122
10/22 @ CLE – W 123-112
10/24 @ BKN – W 111-95
10/25 vs BOS – L 140-129
10/27 @ ORL – W 120-111
10/29 @ MIA – L 114-99
10/31 vs POR – W 125-113
11/1 vs CLE – L 113-110
Smith, Oubre, and Martin – The Hornets Bench Unit That Could
If you watched Devonte’ Graham (14.8 ppg in ‘20-’21) and Malik Monk (11.7 ppg in ‘20-’21) depart Charlotte this past offseason and had some concerns about where the Hornets would find scoring off the bench, you weren’t alone. If you looked up 8 games into the season and were shocked to see Cody Martin, Kelley Oubre Jr., and Ish Smith combining for over 30 points per game, you wouldn’t be alone in that either. Each of these bench players has not only outperformed reasonable expectations but found a significant role to settle into that goes far beyond just spelling the starters. Let’s zoom in.
Ish Smith brings a truly seasoned perspective that few players in the league can claim to have. He’s played for 12 teams in his career, the highest number that any active NBA player can boast. This experience made Smith the perfect offseason candidate for a young Charlotte team looking for a backup PG who could hold the offense steady and keep mistakes as rare as possible. It also provides an important contrast to the virtuosic improvisation that characterizes the Hornets whenever LaMelo Ball is on the floor.
While the Hornets have indeed gotten that steady hand off the bench that they sought after (Smith sits at 2nd in the league in assist to turnover ratio at 8.0), Smith brings more than just careful facilitation. Despite his age at 33 years old, he remains one of the quickest players on the court no matter who he’s sharing it with, able to threaten lightning-fast drives as well as a stop-and-pop midrange game. After last season when Devonte’ Graham struggled to produce anywhere inside the arc, Smith’s ability to slice into the interior gives Charlotte’s offense a much-needed extra dimension.
The Tsunami Papi Has Landed
Kelly Oubre Jr. has always been a tantalizing player, standing at 6’6 with a staggering 7’3 wingspan and explosive hops that would make any lob-happy guard salivate. All that length lends itself to a strong defensive game, but his unexpected significance to the Hornets results from his strides on the other side of the court.
Oubre has historically struggled with his efficiency from 3, shooting a combined 33.2% behind the arc in his last 3 seasons, but that number has climbed to 37.5% on the highest volume of his career (7 3PA/game) since suiting up in Charlotte. The extra spacing this provides to the Hornets’ bench is invaluable for replicating some of the gravity that shooters like Rozier and Hayward provide as starters.
Behold the Ubermartin
Even the most observant among us could be forgiven for not realizing that we have one less Martin twin on our roster this year given that Cody has been putting up as many points alone as he and Caleb combined for last year. This is thanks to a hike in his 3P% as well, but we’re not talking about Oubre’s ~4% climb. No. This is a caterpillar unfurling from its cocoon into a beautiful butterfly. The development that has helped Martin stick to the rotation (and Bouknight to the bench, coincidentally,) is a jump from an anemic 27.6% to a crisp half dollar. 50%.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this improvement in his jumper has likely saved his career, as he’s evolved from a one-dimensional player to a – dare I say it – long, athletic 3 and D wing. As long as Smith, Oubre, and Martin remain high-motor and offensively relevant, this bench unit could shock some great teams throughout the season.
Early Buzz for Bridges
Miles Bridges showed us he had the potential to be the centerpiece of this team when Hayward and Rozier were both out towards the end of last season, a stretch that saw him posting regular 20+ point outings and showcasing a much larger bag of offensive tricks than ever before. Reasonable people disagreed on whether that was a flash of future brilliance or just fool’s gold on small sample size, but those disagreements have now been put to rest.
Bridges’ play across the first 8 games of the season has been fringe all-star caliber, averaging 24 PTS, 8 REB, and 3 AST on solid efficiency. Most Improved Player chatter has already started, and I’m certain it will only get louder as the year goes on.
First Quarter Blues
The Hornets seem to be getting out of the gates exceptionally slowly so far, with the cumulative point differential of their first-quarter play totaling a staggering -50. Their best opening frames have been against Boston and Orlando, where the Hornets peaked at simply keeping the score tied. Of course, we may as well check the data on the other quarters while we’re at it. Q2 -19, Q3 +56, and Q4 +44.
James Borrego. Halftime Hero.
The Bugs’ Big Problem
The Hornets’ first eight games are bookended by nights where offensively strong big men had dominant performances, and it’s not good news for their ability to defend many of the best teams in the league. In their opening night against Indiana, Domantas Sabonis led the Pacers with 33 points on 13-19 from the field, while in the Hornets’ most recent game against the Cavaliers, Jarrett Allen scored a team-high 24.
While Mason Plumlee brings a decent skillset to Charlotte’s center rotation, he’s still not the defensive presence that the Hornets desperately needed going into this year. Nick Richards has logged some meaningful minutes here and there to test the waters as a potential solution to this problem, but if that materializes, it won’t be any time this season. Now if they change the rules to count ruthlessly spiking your opponent’s shot past half-court as a few points? Then we’re in business.