The Charlotte Hornets had a dreadful 2022-23 season, but there’s some optimism that could be just a brief dip into the league’s basement. Two years ago this was a 43 win squad and most of those pieces are now back, as LaMelo Ball should be fully healthy after numerous ankle injuries limited him to 36 appearances a season ago and Miles Bridges signed the qualifying offer after sitting out all of last year following a disturbing domestic violence incident, for which he will miss the first 10 games of this season as well. Joining the mix is Brandon Miller, who they took at No. 2 in this June’s Draft, but for the most part this roster looks a lot like it did two years ago (and was supposed to look last year).
While health is a question for every team — and is certainly a big deal for this Charlotte team given how last year went for their young star guard — we want to explore what non-health question and X-Factor player looms large for each team in reaching their goals this season. In Charlotte, that’s getting back in the Play-In in the East, which would require a big leap from last year but at full strength this is an improved group from a year ago even with few real outside additions.
Biggest Question: What Can Brandon Miller Provide As A Rookie?
The second overall pick figures to be under plenty of scrutiny, particularly given he was taken over Scoot Henderson who figures to get a starring role in Portland. Miller won’t be getting the keys to the franchise handed to him in the same way, and how he slots into whatever role he’s given will be important to the Hornets making a leap back into Play-In contention. The Hornets wing rotation could get a bit cluttered, particularly once Miles Bridges finishes his 10-game suspension. Dealing with potentially inconsistent minutes as well as adjusting to playing a secondary role will be a hurdle for Miller as he makes the move to the NBA, but his skillset is tantalizing on the offensive end and there’s a reason Charlotte wanted him at No. 2 overall. There’s some fun actions they can run with he and LaMelo Ball to take advantage of Ball’s creativity and Miller’s shooting stroke, and if it all clicks, this Hornets team should look a considerably better than last year’s squad. However, rookie seasons are rarely just smooth sailing, particularly when there’s a new role a player has to adapt to, and if Miller struggles to find his groove then it will be very interesting to see how Steve Clifford handles it. This is a team that wants to be competitive, and sometimes that can run counter to letting a young player play through his mistakes.
X-Factor: Mark Williams
The Hornets have been searching for a center for years, drafting big man after big man in the first round but never quite finding the right fit. That might have finally changed with Mark Williams, who came on strong late last season and became the Hornets starter for 17 games in the second half of the year after they traded Mason Plumlee thanks to his defensive impact on the interior. Williams’ defensive presence endeared him to Clifford, whose teams are known for being particularly solid on that end of the floor. The Hornets don’t have a lot of great defenders on the roster, which makes Williams’ ability to clean things up at the rim and protect the paint an especially useful skillset for this Charlotte team. Williams is not a tremendous offensive threat, but if he can develop as a pick-and-roll partner for Ball and Terry Rozier, there’s enough creators and perimeter firepower on this Charlotte roster to not need him to be anything but a play finisher at the rim.
His continued development is important for this Hornets team to reach the goals they have this season, as they desperately need to have a functional center rotation to execute what Clifford wants defensively. Williams and Nick Richards figure to be the center rotation this year, as P.J. Washington has split time between the four and five in the past, but last year was almost a non-factor in the center rotation under Clifford, which isn’t a surprise since he’s undersized as a center and not a great rim protector. That presents an opportunity for both of those young centers to take a stride forward and prove themselves, but it also means this Charlotte team will be leaning on them to provide quality minutes at the five.