The Charlotte Hornets ranked dead last in three point field goal percentage last season and second to last in overall field goal percentage. They ranked in the bottom third of the league in three pointers attempted and were tied for worst in the league in points per shot. They notched the third fewest assists per game and achieved the league’s lowest adjusted field goal percentage.
In summary: the Hornets were an abhorrent offensive team last season. A full-on disaster. They couldn’t shoot and they couldn’t pass. Friendly reminder: Golden State just won a title because they could really shoot and really pass.
Since their season ended in April, the Hornets have tripled down on the triple. The league’s all-time worst shooting-shooting guard Lance Stephenson was swapped out for floor-stretching big man Spencer Hawes. Mid-range bandit Gerald Henderson was shipped west for distance shooting playmaker Nic Batum. The team used a glitch in the matrix (Matt Barnes’s semi-guaranteed contract) to take a flyer on range shooting wing Jeremy Lamb.
So on Draft night it should’ve come as no surprise to Charlotte hoops fans that the team would use it’s Lottery pick on an NCAA player of the year who shot 41% from downtown. Except that it did.
Justise Winslow had a tremendous freshmen season at Duke. He did everything. Scored, rebounded, notched Bojangle Hustle Stats, you name it. And then he and the Blue Devils won the national title. It was the feel good movie of the year and it happened in our backyard.
Who would’ve thought that three months later at the 2015 NBA Draft, Winslow would’ve slipped past not one, not two, not three…but five teams in need of a young small forward? Yet that’s exactly what happened. Suddenly the Hornets were on the clock at pick number nine – and even though the entire internet knew that Charlotte was sold on Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky – it seemed like a no-brainer to select Durham’s Mr. Intangibles and get the steal of the night. Instead, Adam Silver walked to the podium, read off a Polish surname and Twitter exploded with disbelief, snark and disgust.
Three years earlier, another freshmen phenom won a national title while teaming up with a dominant big man. This freshmen was also a big-time intangibles guy who eventually found himself as the number two pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. His name was Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and he’s currently the heart & soul of Charlotte’s Top 10 ranked defense.
The similarities are striking. Like MKG, Winslow struggled with his shot mechanics during his young hoops career. And also like MKG, Justise is a big-time worker. Winslow revamped his form enough to manage 40% shooting from the college three point arc. While Winslow’s length and upside on defense aren’t quite that of Kidd-Gilchrist, his jumper is certainly further along at this point than MKG’s was three seasons ago. That’s the good news.
Here’s the bad news: Winslow’s shooting is still a major problem. Free throw percentage is generally a strong indicator of actual shooting ability and Justise only managed 64% at Duke (that’s six percentage points lower than MKG’s KU numbers). As DraftExpress’s Mike Schmitz pointed out on a recent Nate Duncan podcast, most of Winslow’s three pointers were of the spot up variety, where Justise could have more time to get set and wind through his methodical shooting motion. More concerning is the fact that a lot of these spot up attempts came while matched up against slower, shorter collegiate power forwards who lacked the elite closeout abilities of NBA small forwards.
Justise rarely shot or made mid-range twos during his time at Duke and while that shot has gone out of fashion recently, it’s still a required skill for a scorer. In short, Gerald Henderson is currently a much better shooter than Justise. And Hendo’s pairing with MKG led to the league’s worst offense. Justise would’ve only made them worse.
Steve Clifford and Patrick Ewing spent half a decade together in Orlando helping Stan Van Gundy build around a dominant defender. They surrounded an offensively limited Dwight Howard with as many shooters and playmakers as possible. It worked. They even made the 2009 Finals. It was a modern update on a traditional strategy – from Bill Russell to Alonzo Mourning – scorers on the outside and a shotblocker in the middle.
What Clifford and Ewing are attempting to do in Charlotte has never been done before. They are using the same Orlando formula except they’re building around a offensively limited, dominant wing defender. It’s a bold move. Maybe even a little crazy. But the plan is there, plain as day:
- Kemba Walker as Jameer Nelson: scorer and primary ball handler.
- Nic Batum as Hedo Turkoglu: secondary ball handler and halfcourt distributor.
- Spencer Hawes and Frank Kaminsky as big men versions of shooters JJ Redick and Rashard Lewis.
- And finally…Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as Dwight Howard, defensive stopper.
Again, it’s kind of insane. And it just might work. Unlike decades past, nearly all of the league’s most dangerous scorers play on the perimeter. Steph, KD, Westbrook, Harden, Melo, Lebron. A lumbering, paint-shackled center is useless against defending a step-back twenty-three footer. If you need to make a stop, it has to start outside.
Frank Kaminsky breaks every modern Draft stereotype. He’s a four year senior, none of his measurables blow you away and he’s goofy looking. Instant bust, right? The problem is that Frank can really play. He’s a pick and pop weapon. He’s a spot up three zone buster. He’s a high post facilitator. He takes advantage of smaller defenders on the block. Will the dribble drive game work in the pros? Maybe. If it doesn’t he’s Ryan Anderson. If it does, he’s Dirk or a short-armed Pau.
When the Hornets drafted Cody Zeller two years ago they did everything they could to turn Cody into who Frank Kaminsky is today. But Zeller rarely shot the mid-range in college and is to this day visibly uncomfortable when he’s put into position to attack. How many times have we seen Cody set a screen, get to his spot and not even look at the rim. His eighteen foot jumper has improved but it’s painfully obvious that Cody would rather pass or roll to the hoop (and only if the lane is empty).
Mark my words: Frank will have the exact opposite problem. If he has space, Kaminsky will put it up. No hesitation, no apologies.
After watching clips of Frank the Tank over the past few days, two major questions arose: 1.) Will his off the dribble game translate? and 2.) Will he become a servicable system defender?
The answer to the former is intriguing. If he can punish closeouts in the pros with creative dribble drives, he’s a stud. If not, he’s Anderson or Channing Frye. But it’s the answer to the latter that will determine Kaminsky’s career.
Vantage Sports recently pubished a nice piece on collegiate big men pick and roll defenders which surprisingly ranked Frank highest amongst his peers (including top picks Karl Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein). Kaminsky may not have the Javale McGee turbo jump button but he tends to always be in the right spots when sealing off penetration. Encouraging, sure, but this is while playing center against collegiate competition.
Frank has said numerous times that he fancies himself a Dirk-like stretch four in the pros and if so, his ability to closeout on perimeter shooters and recover on drives will be tested immediately. Guys like Pau Gasol, Dirk and David West have succeeded in spite of below-average mobility but each of them have played with rim protectors throughout most of their careers. Frank will have Al Jefferson. Speaking of which…
What on earth does this pick mean for Al Jefferson’s future in teal? If Clifford can maintain a Top 10 NBA defense with a big rotation of Al, Frank and Spencer Hawes, he deserves a Hall of Fame induction. I’m not even joking. It will be a minor miracle. Sure, the Hornets may field the East’s best defensive wing combo in MKG & Batum but eventually opponents will figure out ways to neutralize them. Kemba and Al defending a one/five pick & roll with Frank as the help will have the Russell Westbrook’s and John Wall’s of the world salivating when they see the letters “CHA” on the upcoming schedule.
This is why all of the talk about playing Al and Hawes or Al and Frank together confuses me. Clifford is neither dumb enough nor hubristic enough to try something like that as more than a gimmick, right? Right? Stauskas? Stauskas?
The Hornets notched back to back elite defensive seasons with Cody Zeller and Josh McRoberts playing next to Jefferson, both of whom are much more laterally and vertically gifted than Kaminsky. After the Draft, Clifford made it a point to say out loud what many of us were already thinking: he would be experimenting with Kaminsky/MKG/Batum/Lamb/Kemba small-ball lineups next season.
That makes a ton of sense theoretically, though I wouldn’t expect to see Charlotte play that way in heavy doses. MKG already gets banged up and misses a ton of games playing against guys his own size; having to go head to head with the Tristan Thompson’s and Greg Monroe’s of the world seems like a bad idea. That said, expect MKG to at least log part of his 30-34 minutes per game at the four. The team plays much better with him on the floor and having a stretch big create more driving and post up opportunities may be the thing that finally opens up the twenty-one year old’s offense.
Those of you who have made it this far have likely already connected the dots. The Kaminsky pick had as much to do with the 2012 Draft as it did with 2015. The team is putting it’s former Lottery picks (MKG and, to a lesser extent, Kemba Walker) in position to win and to improve much like Washington has done with Wall and Bradley Beal.
Some have called this strategy short-sighted and a poor management of assets. I see the opposite. With these moves, the Hornets are doing everything they can to maximize their most prized assets. It’s risky, sure. But isn’t it more risky to endlessly recycle mis-developed prospects and perpetually mortgage the future on another nineteen year old could-be? Charlotte has made their decision and are moving forward in a unified direction. To that I say bravo, Hornets. Bravo.