“Maturity and growth.”
Those are the words Charlotte Hornets’ coach James Borrego used to describe Malik Monk’s performance Wednesday. Those are the traits a Hornets fan should most want Monk demonstrating.
Monk’s first two NBA seasons were a tease. A night once a week — sometimes once every two weeks — when he’d score 18 points, soar to the rim, and remind why he was the 11th overall pick in the 2017 draft.
In-between, he was confused on defense and erratic on offense. He’s had two coaches with the Hornets — Steve Clifford, folllowed by Borrego — and didn’t earn unqualified faith from either.
The encouraging thing about Monk in Wednesday’s 116-110 preseason loss to the Detroit Pistons was judgment, particularly in the first half. That’s when he had all seven of his assists: Lob passes, pocket passes, little threads through arms to set up dunks.
That Monk finished with 18 points also is good, but it’s a given he can score. The beauty of those 18 points was shot selection: None of his 10 attempts (he made six) looked rushed or wild.
“A very mature performance by Malik Monk,” Borrego said post-game. “He’s grown! It looks to me like he’s figuring this thing out. Playing with his teammates, making the right play. He was fantastic tonight.
“The way he moved the ball, the way he made plays for his teammates, the way he put pressure on the rim. He made very good decisions. The consistency of that is what we’re looking for.”
I’ve written too many, “Has Monk turned the corner?” columns in the past, so I’m not rushing to that conclusion this time.
But that “maturity and growth” description is not something you associate with his performance in Charlotte, so it deserves attention.
Not a point guard, but...
Dissuade yourself from any perception Monk’s assists on Wednesday make him a point guard. The Hornets tried that experiment when Monk was a rookie, and it shouldn’t be repeated.
Monk is a shooting guard who can make plays for others. That’s not the same as a point guard, but this season it’s essential non-point guards take on some ball-movement responsibility.
The Hornets lost their all-time scorer, point guard Kemba Walker, to the Boston Celtics in free-agency. Walker was one of the most ball-dominant players in the NBA, and with good reason. The Hornets lost not only Walker, but backup Tony Parker, a Hall-of-Famer in waiting.
Terry Rozier and Devonte Graham will do fine as this team’s point guards, but they need more help from other ball-movers than the plan called for last season. That means Nic Batum handling the ball more. It means Cody Zeller handling more. And if Wednesday isn’t a mirage, it means Monk handling more.
“That’s part of being a basketball player,” Monk said. “(Kemba) is a ball-dominant guard. That’s what got him where he is today. But we’ve just got to work around” his departure.
“You know, I think we all had the ball in college. We’ve got to come together and figure that out. That will be a challenge for us, but I think we’ll be good with it.”
I asked Borrego about how ball-movement must be more of an ensemble effort this season. He chose the word “embrace” to describe what he needs from this group. As in, ball-distribution shouldn’t be a chore, it should be an opportunity.
Batum, who is currently out with a sore Achilles, has long shown play-making and organizing skills. As centers go, Zeller is a good decision-maker in dribble hand-offs and can create action for others with precise screening.
With his explosiveness, Monk has always had the ability to create the advantages for others that he did on Wednesday. But that took a focus — a “maturity and growth” to use Borrego’s words — that was a come-and-go proposition.
“It’s new for them. The ball is going to be in their hands, making more decisions than ever,” Borrego said. “With that comes responsibility. I’m going to trust our guys that over time, this will play out the right way.”
Borrego was speaking broadly. But make no mistake, those words — both the opportunity and responsibility — particularly apply to Monk.