Real talk: Malik Monk was horrendous through his first seven pro games. Outside of his 17 point effort versus the Nuggets (with former coach John Calipari in the building) there was little to be excited about.
Monk shot 20 for 68 from the field (29%) through this stretch – not good considering that shooting was supposedly his one surefire NBA skill heading into the Draft. His defense was awful (so bad that I caught Jeremy freaking Lamb shaking his head when Malik lost his man for the gazzilionth time). Worst of all, Monk was a turnover machine, averaging nearly 2 TOs per game in just over 20 minutes per.
Not all of this was the rookie’s fault. Injuries to both Hornet backup PGs (Michael Carter-Williams & Julyan Stone) forced Monk into a lead ball handler role he wasn’t ready for in the NCAA much less the pros.
Yet some of these problems are (and will continue to be) endemic to the type player Monk is. His handle at the moment is loose and when a defender locks in, Monk resorts to a nervous head down dribble in the full court. Given his size, strength and ability, Monk is essentially fated to guard ones and micro-twos so playing him next to Kemba for long stretches will be difficult against good teams. If and when Malik goes through his physical “mansformation”, this could change but that won’t be for several seasons.
No one’s been more critical of Rich Cho’s decision to draft Monk over a ready-made defensive beast who can shoot (Donovan Mitchell) than me – and through Malik’s first seven contests I was terrified that Charlotte’s front office had done what they do best again: Nail trades (Dwight Howard) and blow the Draft (Monk).
Malik’s effort Wednesday night against Milwaukee lowered my stress levels by half. Aside from the ridiculous 4th quarter explosion (18 points in a blink of an eye – we knew he was capable of that pre-Draft), what warmed my teal and purple soul was Monk’s carefulness as a ball handler and how he was able to play within his niche.
So much of Malik’s struggles early on were due to his insistence on trying to do everything on offense. Against the Bucks he focused on catch & shoot opportunities and jump shots off screens – which perfectly setup two impressive dribble drives midway thought the 4th. He was beautifully efficient. Much credit to both Malik and the coaching staff for figuring this out so early in the season.
The Off Court Benefits of Monk at Point Guard
Cho and Steve Clifford have more than just on-court reasons for accelerating Monk’s ability to play point. For the reasons stated above, if Malik is going to reach his apex as an NBA player – and for the team to succeed while he does so – Monk is going to have to play a lot of his minutes at the one.
When (if?) this apex is achieved, the trickle-down benefits carry enormous ramifications. For one, Charlotte can finally end its yearly bargain-bin search for a primary backup to Kemba Walker and instead invest those meager funds in a quality third string player should either Monk or Walker miss time.
Malik’s rookie deal keeps him cheap until the 2020-2021 season, timing perfectly with Nic Batum’s near max deal. The only reason to pay a player like Nic that kind of money is to team him with a lead guard who’d rather play like a primary scorer. That’s obviously true now with Kemba in his prime and could continue as Malik approaches his.
Once Batum returns this season, I expect him to play quite a lot with the 2nd unit (as he did last year), especially now that Lamb has proven to be such a great fit with the starters. An early rest for Nic would see him playing most of the 2nd quarter with Monk at nominal point, creating more efficient scoring opportunities for the rook.
Perhaps most importantly, an effective Monk at PG can cut Kemba’s minutes down to the low thirties. Walker has had two knee surgeries in as many summers and the big minutes slowed him down late last season. With unrestricted free agency (and a massive contract) looming just 18 months from now, the less wear and tear on the 27 year old star, the better.
Speaking of that next contract (and yes, I know it’s nearly two seasons away), it’s important to remember that Walker will be 29 when he signs it and potentially coming off of three straight All-Star appearances.
What happens if the Knicks decide to break the bank in order to bring the Bronx native home at the full max? Do the Hornets really want to be on the hook for that kind of contract? Is a 33 year old Walker at around $30 million per season a wise move?
What if Kemba has yet another knee procedure? How does his game age? No one wants to think about this now that he’s balling out (including me) but rest assured, these questions are being contemplated by the Hornets front office.
And if they look into deep recesses of Rich Cho’s database, they may see a scenario in which Monk is not only Kemba’s short term backup at PG but his longterm replacement should things go awry.
In that case, it’s very important for Monk to not only improve as a pro but to improve at a position few expected him to ever play.