Basketball

Time to make Devonte Graham a Hornets starter? Time to at least think about it!

I asked Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego if he’s giving thought to starting Devonte Graham.

“Not right now,” Borrego replied without elaborating.

If not, then maybe he should. Graham, the second-year point guard, has clearly outperformed Terry Rozier, who the Hornets brought in from the Boston Celtics on a 3-year, $57 million contract.

Rozier particularly struggled against the Celtics Thursday in a 21-point loss, shooting 1-of-11 from the field, committing four turnovers and getting in first-half foul trouble. Graham was far from great, shooting 2-of-10 from 3 Thursday. But he finished with 15 points and nine assists, and the edge at this point is considerable.

You can excuse Rozier if he was nervous in his first regular-season game against the team that drafted him four seasons ago. However, he has been up-and-down throughout his first eight games in Charlotte, while Graham’s improvement from his rookie season has been a revelation.

Starting is frankly not as big a deal as it’s often portrayed. The better measure of a player’s value to an NBA coach is who closes out tight games. But if this is the Hornets’ season of discovery and experimentation, then why not plug Graham into a starting spot if only to inspect how it might play out?

Graham is the Hornets’ scoring leader at 17 points per game (Rozier being second at 15.1). Graham also is shooting 42 percent from 3 and averaging seven assists. His efficiency running the offense isn’t just well beyond what he was as a rookie, it’s just plain starter-quality.

So why not give a shot to starting him?

Counter-arguments

Since Borrego didn’t offer details, I’ll suggest what could be reasons not to make a change: That it could psych out Rozier. That it could throw off the rotation at other positions, such as shooting guard where both Rozier and Graham play part-time. That it could push Graham into a role for which he’s not yet ready.

I hope Rozier’s contract doesn’t factor into this. Borrego told the Observer in September that he won’t concern himself this season with contracts, salaries or where a player was drafted in doling out playing time. I think he’s been true to that. For instance, he made the bold move to insert second-round rookie Cody Martin into the rotation as a defensive stopper, and that’s worked well.

The fact that Rozier is owed all this money shouldn’t influence how he’s played. As general manager Mitch Kupchak said just before the regular season, with Kemba Walker gone there is no player on this roster who automatically deserves minutes.

‘Not reactionary’

I find Borrego’s philosophy regarding his job particularly interesting. Last season he said he doesn’t want to be “reactionary” in his decision-making, such as remake his rotation constantly in response to strengths of an opposing rotation. I found that gutsy and unconventional coming from a then-rookie coach.

If Borrego believes it’s too soon to reshuffle Graham’s and Rozier’s status, I respect that. But it has to be something at least worth his consideration.

He might never have more latitude than he does right now, as far as trying something for the sake of exploration.

Why not just see?

Rick Bonnell is a sportswriter/columnist for the Charlotte Observer. He has been in Charlotte since 1988, when the NBA arrived, and has covered the Hornets continuously. A former president of the Pro Basketball Writers Association, Bonnell also writes occasionally on the NFL and college sports.
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