2020-2021 Record: 33-39
The Charlotte Hornets were everyone’s favorite League Pass team last season and they should remain one of the most exciting teams to watch, though they might have some serious competition from the Houston Rockets. It was a mixed bag of a season for the Hornets in 2020-21. LaMelo Ball emerged, Gordon Hayward looked good when healthy, and both Terry Rozier and Miles Bridges had breakout seasons. They managed to sneak into the expanded playoffs, where they failed to advance out of the Play-In tournament. They might fall out of the Play-In this season due to the surprisingly tough Eastern Conference, but it’s all about development and improvement for this roster anyways. As long as they draft well, or, you know…tank, their best years should be ahead of them. Let’s figure out what all this means for fantasy!
LaMelo Ball averaged 15.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, and 1.6 steals, en route to winning Rookie of the Year in 2020-21. It was a surprise for many people to see LaMelo be an immediate contributor. I believe even his most fervent supporters expected a steeper learning curve than what he experienced. He shot 43% from the field, 35% from three, and 75% from the free-throw line. It’s a strong baseline to start from and there remains plenty of room for improvement.
Based on their off-season moves, it’s clear the Hornets see LaMelo Ball as their long-term solution at point guard and someone they can build around. There is little doubt that Ball’s emergence as an immediate rotation player, and on some nights a great deal more, informed their decision to move on from both DeVonte’ Graham and Malik Monk. In drafting James Bouknight, I imagine the Hornets are hoping to replace Graham’s production on the cheap. With Monk and Graham in new uniforms and Bouknight likely to experience some growing pains, Ball should get even more opportunities as a primary playmaker. Last year, Ball had a 26.1% usage rate, which was the highest on the team, just ahead of Terry Rozier (24.4%) and Gordon Hayward (23.9%). With fewer reliable guards on the roster all three of the players listed above could see a modest increase in usage. Ball’s minutes per game should increase as well; he averaged 28.8 mpg last season and if he can avoid an extended injury absence he’ll rack up even more counting stats this season. I’m expecting a strong and exciting second season from Ball.
A note of caution: if LaMelo sees a larger than expected increase in usage, maybe due to a Gordon Hayward injury, we could see his shooting percentages dip. Players typically see their field goal percentage go down when they significantly increase their shot volume. Similarly, the biggest question surrounding Ball in the lead-up to the draft was his shooting, specifically his three-point shooting. He assuaged some of those fears by shooting 35% from three, but three-point percentages take a while to level out. Is LaMelo going to consistently shoot 35% or better from three?
Ish Smith is a steady, veteran point-guard who will keep the pedal pressed to the floor when he enters the game, but he won’t be fantasy relevant. The Hornets should look to play faster this year, given that much of their roster is at their best in transition—LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges, and Kelly Oubre especially.
Terry Rozier‘s three-point shooting is real. Rozier has shot 35% or above from three for four straight seasons and he’s been at 38% or above for three of those four seasons. However, prior to last season, that efficiency from long range had never translated to solid overall efficiency. Rozier was being held back by a catastrophically bad two-point percentage. To compare, Rozier shot 43% or below on two-point attempts every year of his career before last season. Last year he shot 51.2% on twos. What changed!? I can’t quite say I have it figured out. Rozier has always been a good athlete for his size (6″1’), but clearly, some combination of strength, craft, and NBA experience coalesced to drastically raise his shooting percentage. One expects that even if he regresses from two-point range, he should still settle in somewhere above his 2019-20 numbers. Here is his full stat line from last season: 20.4 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.3 steals, and 0.4 blocks, with shooting splits of 45/38/51. Expect a slight drop in overall efficiency, but Rozier should otherwise be able to duplicate his numbers from last season.
The Hornets used the eleventh pick in the 2021 NBA Draft on James Bouknight, a score-first guard out of the University of Connecticut. As I mentioned earlier, Bouknight projects as the Devonte’ Graham replacement and as such should get some opportunities this season. Bouknight was a tough shot maker on high usage (31.6%) last season, but there are questions about his three-point shooting. He shot 29.3% on five three-point attempts a game in his final year of college, but with such a small sample (22 of 75), it’s hard to know how much stock to put in that number. You shouldn’t be drafting Bouknight, but you can certainly keep an eye on him if he develops quicker than expected. I’d expect to see the best of Bouknight in future seasons, however. Lastly, I can’t discuss James Bouknight without gesturing you toward the rude treatment he received at the hands of Davion Mitchell at the NBA Summer League. In this video alone, you can clearly see some areas for improvement for Bouknight, namely, strength and ball-handling.
Gordon Hayward has averaged 56 games played over the previous three seasons. Health is always the concern with Hayward and he played in only 44 of a possible 72 games last season. You should expect him to miss games, but here’s to hoping he can play 65 to 70 games this year. When he does play, I expect him to be an efficient, versatile contributor. He averaged 19.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.2 steals, and 0.3 blocks, with shooting splits of 47/41/84 last season. You should try to let him fall in drafts given the high injury risk, but if he does happen to stay healthy you’re getting a top 75 player. Hayward finished 53rd in per-game value last year, per Yahoo.
Kelly Oubre Jr. is the quintessential “Valley Boy.” I imagine Oubre moonlighting as a model when he’s not working on his game. I imagine him reminding his defenders of how pretty he is after back-cutting them for a thunderous dunk, like something straight out of the Muhammad Ali playbook. I imagine him always in some unimpeachable fit of hype beast high fashion. I imagine he blew kisses at Michael Jordan and James Borrego after he signed his new contract with the Hornets. I imagine Oubre has a rich inner life and maybe more confidence than is useful. Oubre joins the Charlotte Hornets in search of greener pastures.
The Golden State Warriors have one of the more complicated offenses in the league and it was a poor match for Oubre’s shoot-first-ask-questions-later approach to basketball. That said, the Warriors finished last season third in pace, whereas the Hornets finished 18th. I’d expect the Hornets to play faster this season, which should help Oubre settle into his new situation. I’m expecting a bounce-back season for Oubre.
The Hornets need his defense and athleticism, he should play well with LaMelo, and he’ll certainly be looking to set himself up for a bigger contract two years from now. If nothing else, one expects Oubre won’t start the 2021-22 season as poorly as he started the 2020-21 season. Oubre was 0-17 from three and 0-31 on non-dunk attempts in the Warriors’ first three games last season. But the woes did not end there, he shot just 40% percent from the field and 27.5% from three in the month of January. He eventually turned things around and finished the season averaging 15.4 points, 6 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1 steal and 0.8 blocks a game, with shooting splits of 43/31/69. That he managed to drag himself out of his early-season slump is impressive, but it was clear he never really found the flow in Golden State. A Warriors blooper real from last season would include plenty of clips of Oubre running into Steph Curry or simply being too slow to cut-through as Curry attempted to relocate for an open three.
Jalen McDaniels has shown some flashes, but I don’t expect him to be fantasy-relevant outside of streaming situations.
There may be a camp battle between P.J. Washington and Miles Bridges for the starting power forward spot on the roster, but I’m not sure the outcome even matters all that much. Both guys will play plenty and winning the starting job likely won’t turn Bridges into the better small-ball center option. Last season, P.J. Washington averaged 30.5 mpg and Miles Bridges averaged 29.3 mpg. Their numbers were pretty similar across the board in what was a breakout season for Bridges. Washington is the better defender and defensive playmaker, however. Here are their full season stat lines:
Miles Bridges: 12.7 points, 6 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 0.8 blocks a game with shooting splits of 50/40/86.
P.J. Washington: 12.9 points, 6.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.2 blocks a game with shooting splits of 44/38/74.
Yes, you read that right. Miles Bridges was somewhat close to a 50/40/90 season. The question is whether or not his newfound marksmanship from deep is real. While Washington is a career 38.1% shooter from three in his two seasons in the NBA, Bridges is only a 35.4% three-point shooter, due in large part to his efficiency from last season. Bridges shot just 32.5 and 33% from three in his first two seasons. If his shooting is real, he’s a much more efficient and reliable option for the Hornets and that eliminates some of his variance in fantasy.
As I mentioned before, Washington is the defensive playmaker, reflected both in his higher steal and block numbers and the fact that he spent 46% of his minutes at center last season according to Basketball Reference. With Bismack Biyombo not on the roster, Cody Zeller in Portland, and Kai Jones a rookie, there should be plenty of run for P.J. Washington as a small-ball center this season. I expect solid seasons from both players and an optimist might say it’s Washington’s turn to have a breakout season, but I like Bridges’ situation a little bit better. Bridges has a more limited set of responsibilities and his path to consistent success is pretty straightforward—knock down open threes, throw down rim-shaking dunks in transition, and continue to improve on defense. If Bridges can continue to finish well around the basket—he shot 72% within three feet last season—his two-point percentage will remain high (59.3% last season), thus buoying his overall efficiency.
Mason Plumlee should be the Hornets starting center, but as I just pointed out, his upside is tempered by P.J. Washington’s ability to play center. Plumlee is also hurt by Oubre’s arrival, since Oubre can defend one through four, making him a great option in a small-ball switch everything scheme. Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo both averaged 20 minutes a game last season. Plumlee is a solid veteran center, but after rebounding his best skill might be passing, and you’re not going to run too much of your offense through Mason Plumlee when you have LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, and Terry Rozier on the roster. I’m down on Plumlee as an upside play, but he should still produce enough to be a solid, low-floor option in deeper fantasy leagues.
Kai Jones is an athletic, energy big out of the University of Texas and some of his college highlights are pretty impressive. Check out this behind the back move into a made three-pointer around the 5:59 mark of this video:
Jones shot 38% from three in college last year so there’s some reason for optimism about his jump shot. Jones should have his fair share of highlight dunks this season, but he’s likely best left undrafted and added to your waiver wire watchlist. Tracking his skill development should be a lot of fun for Keeper and Dynasty League players.