With Zeller out, rookies Carey and Richards will get more opportunities for Hornets

By Richard Walker

Vernon Carey, Jr., with a dunk during Charlotte Hornets training camp. [Hornets.com photo]
Most thought the Charlotte Hornets had found a pair of potential diamonds in the rough when they picked up college standout centers Vernon Carey, Jr., of Duke and Nick Richards of Kentucky in last month’s NBA Draft.

After losing starting center Cody Zeller to a broken hand injury for at least a month in their regular season opener, the expectation to get contributions from the rookie centers has become more urgent.

Veteran Bismack Biyombo will start at center in Zeller’s place, but Carey and Richards are being challenged by head coach James Borrego to be a part of the team’s rotation.

That starts with Saturday night’s home opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

“Whenever coach J.B. calls my name, I’ve got be ready,” Carey said in a Saturday morning zoom news conference call after a shootaround practice session. “It’s sad to see Cody hurt but it’s next man up. I’ve got to prepare and be ready.”

Neither Carey nor Richards played in Wednesday’s 121-114 season-opening loss at Cleveland and both played only sparingly in the preseason.

A 6-foot-10, 230-pounder, Carey was selected No. 32 overall in the second round of last month’s NBA draft and averaged 1.5 points, 0.5 rebounds and 3.0 minutes in two preseason games.

“He’s talking to me about being a rotation guys and earning his trust,” Carey said of the advice he’s gotten from Borrego.

Richards, a 6-foot-11, 245-pounder, was selected No. 42 overall by the New Orleans Pelicans last month but acquired by Charlotte in a draft night trade. He averaged 2.3 points, 1.6 rebounds and 6.0 minutes in three preseason games.

“They’re just telling me to take advantage of the opportunity,” Richards said of the advice he’s gotten from his coaches.

Zeller had surgery on the fourth metacarpal of his left hand in New York City on Thursday and the team said he will be re-evaluated in four weeks. An ESPN report said Zeller would be out four to six weeks after the surgery.

Both players will be looking to duplicate their efforts in college when they had more expanded roles.

At Duke, Carey was ACC rookie of the year and an All-ACC performer last season when he averaged 17.8 points, 8.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 31 games (30 games).

At Kentucky, Richards started 70 of 105 games and averaged 7.3 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots. Last season when Richards was an All-SEC performer, he averaged 14.0 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in 31 games (30 starts).