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Hornets preseason wrapup: The good, the bad and the promising as team preps for Wednesday regular season opener

By Richard Walker

Gordon Hayward (20) goes through Monday’s Charlotte Hornets practice drills as the team prepares for Wednesday’s season-opener at Cleveland. [Hornets.com photo]
After his team finishing its preseason schedule with a 1-3 record, Charlotte Hornets head coach James Borrego is excited about the future of the franchise.

That’ll begin with Wednesday night’s regular season opener at the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But before moving forward, let’s look back at the recently-completed preseason.

What did we expect?
Borrego failed to bite on any “playoffs of bust” questions in the preseason. But he remains confident the team can be more than competitive.

“I like this team,” Borrego said in a Monday zoom news conference after the team’s last full practice session before the opener. “I like their spirit. And I like the start we had. If we clean up our turnovers, we’re going to be a heckuva offense.”

With guards Devonte’ Graham, Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball and facilitating swingman Gordon Hayward as primary ballhandlers, Borrego says the team is determined to push tempo in every game.

He made a football reference on Monday about how fast he wants the Hornets to play.

“We’re trying to play like the two-minute drill in football,” Borrego said. “I’m not much of a football guy but in the two-minute drill there’s constant pressure on the defense. They can’t sub. That’s what I want from our guys. We want to create constant pressure on the defense.”

Initially, that tempo has led to excessive turnovers – the Hornets averaged 19.8 in four preseason games – but also has led to a 112.3 scoring average.

Who did well?
Rozier (17.0 average), Graham (16.0), Hayward (12.5), Miles Bridges (10.8) and Cody Zeller (10.0) were top scorers and only Graham of that quintet shot less than 50 percent – and he made 46.9 percent of his shots – in the preseason.

The style of play clearly seems a fit for Ball, whose herky-jerky driving style is reminiscent of former All-Star Allen Iverson and his flair for finding the open pass will quickly make the recent No. 3 overall pick a fan favorite.

Ball came off the bench in the preseason and appeared to make a quick connection with Bridges as evidence by a couple of highlight-reel alley-oop slam dunk conversions.

The team’s penchant and interest in passing is easily shown in the high assist-to-made field goal percentage of 110-to-157.

Another revelation could be the solid play the team got from second-year forward Jalen McDaniels. Mostly a G-League player last season who played 16 games for the Hornets, McDaniels averaged 8.2 points and 3.8 rebounds in the preseason while converting 66.7 percent of his shots, including six of nine on 3-pointers.

Who struggled?
P.J. Washington is considered key to the “small ball” lineup since he’ll be an undersized center.

He averaged 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists and a team-high 1.5 blocks in the preseason but his scoring suffered (7.8 average) due to 29.5 percent shooting that includes two of 14 on 3-pointers.

“For us to be our best this season and have the season we believe we can have, he has to play better,” Borrego said of Washington.

Said Washington: “He believes in me. My team believes in me. I’ve got to be ready to step up and be better.”

Who was limited by illness and/or injury?
Malik Monk missed all of the preseason training camp and the preseason opener after testing positive for COVID-19 and Hayward missed the last two games after breaking a bone in his right pinkie finger.

Monk says he’s still in top physical condition but is shaking off the rust of inactivity.

Hayward vows to be ready to play on Wednesday.

Said Borrego on Monday of Hayward: “He practiced today. A full practice. We’ll see how he responds tomorrow. We’re trending in the right direction.”

What questions remain?
Can the team really play “small ball” with Washington at center and Bridges at power forward? When healthy, will Hayward prove to be the leader and facilitator the team hoped he can be when it signed him to a four-year, $120 million contract? Also, how effective and what role can Ball play on the team as a rookie?

The reviews so far have to be no better than mixed about the small ball lineup. Is the charge to play more minutes at center caused Washington’s slow start or is it too small a sample size to make such a conclusion?

Hayward’s impact gets an incomplete due to the injury. However, since the team is determined to force tempo and Hayward and others are comfortable with that playing style, one would expect that to continue even as there may be some growing pains.

Ball’s passing has been celebrated since the first day of camp and he had 15 assists in 77 preseason minutes. He also missed 31 of his 42 shots and 16 of his 22 3-pointers.

“In general, he’s played very well,” Borrego said. “He’s a rookie He’s going to have some of the struggles any young player goes through.”

Conclusion
Oddsmakers have established 26 1-2 as the over/under for Hornets wins this season. Based on the preseason and the team’s added depth, it seems a really good bet they’ll easily surpass that number.

Will that mean a postseason appearance? Hard to make that assessment now but it’s clear Borrego likes its chances.

“I believe this team will get off to a good start and grow and sustain that over time,” Borrego said.