Who would’ve expected that the Charlotte Hornets are one of the most exciting teams through the first week of the 2022-23 season without All-Star point guard LaMelo Ball?
A 2-1 record is nothing to write home about, but the Hornets are bringing some buzz back to Buzz City with their early play. Head coach Steve Clifford has this young group playing an inspired, team-focused brand of basketball predicated on aggressive and decisive choices. They are attacking the basket with intention, whipping the ball across the court to create better looks and clean up each other’s messes on both sides of the floor.
Charlotte opened its season by blowing out the upstart San Antonio Spurs before closely contesting an emerging powerhouse in the New Orleans Pelicans. They wrapped up their week by demoralizing the Atlanta Hawks in front of a raucous opposing crowd — a win they achieved with six players reaching double-figures and five players adding at least three assists.
So how are the Hornets, a team most expected to fall out of the Playoff conversation, faring so well without their star player in the lineup?
The Charlotte Hornets take a ‘next-man-up’ approach to the 2022-23 season.
It was a troubling offseason for the Hornets with little upside to point toward. Several of their top contributors from last season are no longer with the team, Ball suffered an ankle injury in the preseason and they didn’t make any splashy additions in free agency. However, internal growth and solid coaching have empowered the young, emerging talent on this team to fill that gap.
Two key aspects of this early success have come from point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and center Nick Richards. The former, who was picked ninth overall out of North Carolina State in 2017, has bounced around the league without finding a proper home. Smith Jr. is performing admirably as a backup point guard and even started in place of the injury Terry Rozier against Atlanta. Richards, now in his third year out of Kentucky, is playing the role of a traditional big man to perfection, contributing largely near the rim to the tune of 15 points and nine rebounds in three appearances off the bench.
The veterans for this team are stepping up in their own right with Gordon Hayward taking on more of a place-setting role from the perimeter while Kelly Oubre Jr. assumes some more shot-creation reps for a team lacking its key scorers from years past. Although he missed one game, the aforementioned Rozier was lights-out in his first two appearances, posting 23.5 points and 8.5 assists between those two contests.
Through all of the individual production, it’s that unselfish nature based on playing for each other that has been the key to earning the fourth-best offensive rating in basketball thus far. Seven different players have a usage percentage higher than 18.2 and nine players are taking at least six shots per game.
With the ball spread around and in turn, defenses on their heels, the Charlotte Hornets implemented a style that will serve them well once their star returns to the rotation.