#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Charlotte Hornets for 2017-18

How does every NBA player stack up heading into 2017-18, based solely on the level at which we expect them to play during the upcoming season?

That’s the question 16 NBA Math staff members and contributors sought to answer, ranking each and every player in the sport’s premier league on a 1-to-12 scale and then seeing who emerged with the highest averages. The distant past was irrelevant. Long-term potential doesn’t matter. Only what could come to pass in 2017-18 is factored in, assuming health for those currently healthy and full recoveries from those presently injured. For example, Brandon Knight will still be included in this analysis; we just assumed he’d already completed his rehab for the torn ACL and now has that as a prior portion of his overall injury history.

All players were graded on the following scale by each evaluator, and ties between players with identical averages were broken by sorting the 16 scores from best to worst and propping up the men who had the highest mark at any point in the top-down progression:

  1. Shouldn’t Get Minutes
  2. End-of-Bench Pieces
  3. Depth Pieces
  4. High-End Backups
  5. Low-End Starters
  6. Solid Starters
  7. High-End Starters, Non-All-Stars
  8. All-Star Candidates
  9. All-NBA Candidates, Non-MVP Candidates
  10. Lesser MVP Candidates
  11. MVP Frontrunners
  12. Best Player in the League (only one player could earn this grade on each ballot)

Journey with us team by team as we unveil the entirety of these rankings, culminating in a look at every player set to suit up for the 2017-18 campaign.

Today’s featured squad? The Charlotte Hornets, who are trying to work back into the Eastern Conference playoff picture after moving to acquire Dwight Howard this offseason.

16. Isaiah Hicks: 1.00

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.8 points, 5.5 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.7 blocks, 146.71 TPA (for North Carolina Tar Heels)
  • Highest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

If Isaiah Hicks worms his way into the Charlotte Hornets’ rotation after receiving a training-camp invite, that’ll be problematic for the team’s playoff hopes. The 23-year-old is an undrafted rookie signee who slowly built up his stock during a four-year collegiate career under Roy Williams’ supervision. He’s not a versatile player and doesn’t figure to add much on the offensive end, with almost all his value stemming from his defense.

He could eventually learn how to use his left hand, which would help his back-to-the-basket success carry over into the Association. But playing him for any minutes of note would be an admission of defeat from Charlotte, since he’s not ready to do more than use his athleticism and lanky wingspan (7’0.5″) in displays of switchability against fellow backups.

14(tie). T.J. Williams: 1.18

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 22
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 21.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 48.09 TPA (for Northeastern Huskies)
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

During his senior season at Northeastern, T.J. Williams exploded. He’d never averaged more than 9.6 points and 3.2 assists per game, but he somehow went for a staggering 21.4 and 5.3 while shooting 46.3 percent from the field and 76.2 percent from the charity stripe. As a result, he was named his conference’s Player of the Year and got a shot to stick with Charlotte, which is still searching for a legitimate backup point guard behind Kemba Walker.

But as Williams will soon discover, the Colonial Athletic Association is slightly different than the Association.

Maybe his floater will continue to pay dividends when he bursts into the lane. But he’ll have far more trouble bolting past defenders to gain easy opportunities, and his inability to connect on long-range jumpers won’t help when smart foes sag well off him.

14(tie). Julyan Stone: 1.18

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 8.2 points, 6.2 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.0 blocks (for Fort Wayne Mad Ants)
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

The last time Julyan Stone played in the NBA, he was a member of the Toronto Raptors during the 2013-14 campaign. Over the course of 21 appearances, he averaged 0.9 points, 1.0 rebounds, 0.6 assists and 0.1 steals while shooting 41.2 percent from the field, 25.0 percent from downtown and 66.7 percent at the free-throw line. If you’re looking for the definition of “nondescript,” go re-read the previous sentence.

Since then, he’s played for Umana Reyer Venzia in Italy (on two separate occasions), Royal Hali Gaziantep in Turkey and the G League’s Fort Wayne Mad Ants. Considering he failed to leave an indelible impression as anything other than a distributor in what was formerly known as the NBA Developmental League, arguing he’ll be anything more than end-of-bench fodder is a tough sell.

13. Treveon Graham: 1.50

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 2.1 points, 0.8 rebounds, 0.2 assists, 0.2 steals, minus-10.17 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

A 6’6″ shooting guard who’s clearly spent some time in the weight room, Treveon Graham is capable of holding his own on the defensive end. He employs a physical style of point-preventing and seeks to create plenty of havoc in passing lanes when he’s not pestering ball-handlers. Yes, that choice of words was intentional, considering where Graham spent his college days (hint: It rhymes with BCU Cams).

But if he’s going to overcome the Hornets’ depth on the wings and earn legitimate run, he’ll need to prove himself as a two-way asset. Shooting 60 percent from beyond the arc as a rookie was a tremendous start, but let’s not pretend that’s anything more than a small-sample fluke. He took a grand total of 15 attempts from downtown, not too far removed from shooting 35.4 percent during his NCAA career.

12. Johnny O’Bryant: 1.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 3.5 points, 1.7 rebounds, 0.5 assists, 0.1 blocks, minus-5.35 TPA (for Denver Nuggets and Charlotte Hornets)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Just imagine what might happen if Johnny O’Bryant could play defense.

Right now, he’s best-served as a floor-spacing power forward who’s comfortable taking and making shots from outside the painted area. His range doesn’t always extend to three-point territory, but he’s still adept enough as a catch-and-shoot player that he draws bigger defenders away from the basket. Ask him to do anything more, and the results are, at best, inconsistent. Some players just have bricks for hands, and O’Bryant’s betray him even when he gains strong rebounding positioning or beats his man to the inside and awaits an entry feed.

11. Dwayne Bacon: 1.94

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 17.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.1 blocks, 78.67 TPA (for Florida State Seminoles)
  • Highest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

If Dwayne Bacon wants to carve out a spot in the rotation, he needs to focus of becoming a legitimate three-and-D player. That’s the only way he can earn a legitimate slice of the potential wing minutes, since he’s an inconsistent distributor who needs to be at his best in spot-up situations. Focusing on finding open space in the corners would help him cook, but it’ll be a departure from the driving game he used so frequently at Florida State.

Bacon’s stroke wasn’t exactly sizzling with the Seminoles, but he has the potential to become a quality shooter. The defense is already closer to fruition, since he has the physical frame and instincts necessary to hold his own against lesser offensive players.

10. Michael Carter-Williams: 2.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 26
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 6.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-40.32 TPA (for Chicago Bulls)
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 1 (multiple voters)

Remember when Michael Carter-Williams was the Rookie of the Year?

He hasn’t developed much since those early days with the Philadelphia 76ers. Not a single one of our voters viewed him as anything more than a top-end backup, and that likely won’t change if he doesn’t show any semblance of shooting ability. Even in his fourth professional season, he could only hit 36.6 percent of his field-goal attempts and 23.4 percent of his treys for the Chicago Bulls.

Carter-Williams is a decent distributor who can use his 6’6″ frame to peer over the top of smaller point guards. He’s been able to parlay his size and length into solid backcourt defense, and he can even switch on some screens to successfully deter roll men and push them back to the perimeter. But he’s still too much of a liability as a shooter to become anything more than a situational asset.

9. Jeremy Lamb: 3.13

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 23
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 0.4 steals, 0.4 blocks, minus-38.74 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (multiple voters)

At what point will the Hornets give up on Jeremy Lamb?

The 23-year-old small forward seems to have nine lives, and he may be on his final one after failing to realize much of his potential in three seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder and two with Charlotte. Though he still has two years remaining on his contract, a failure to display substantial improvement could leave him stuck on the bench in perpetuity.

Lamb once looked like a dynamic offensive threat who could attack the hoop off the bounce or pull up for a swishing jumper. Those days, despite his enduring youth, are now long gone. Until he regains confidence in his perimeter stoke, he’ll be far too easier for even lesser defenders to guard, since they can give him plenty of space near the three-point arc and dare him to misfire. He often appeases them in something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

8. Malik Monk: 3.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 19
  • Position: SG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 19.8 points, 2.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks, 181.24 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 2 (Tim Stubbs)

Malik Monk may be a high-quality defender once he develops and learns how to throw around his frame, but he’s not there yet. During his rookie season, he should thrive first and foremost as a scorer, leveraging his slashing ability and knack for finding avenues to the basket to rack up points off the Charlotte bench.

Just be warned: It’ll be a roller-coaster ride.

The Kentucky product may well be the most talented pure scorer in this rookie class, but he’s far from consistent. He can fall in love with his shooting ability and let far too many heat-checks fly. He can penetrate into the teeth of the defense and force up a shot rather than passing out to an open man on the perimeter. And when those tough shots fall, it’ll be both a blessing and a curse—the blessing is obvious, but the curse is the reinforcement of that less-than-ideal behavior.

7. Frank Kaminsky: 3.88

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.7 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks, minus-58.44 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (Nick Birdsong)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

“I thought Frank was up and down this year,”  Hornets general manager Rich Cho explained while assessing Frank Kaminsky’s sophomore campaign, per Hornets.com’s Sam Perley. “I think if you talked to him, he would say the same thing. He did start playing a lot better in February and then he got hurt a little bit. His play went down and then he got back to full strength and started playing better. I think he started getting a lot more confident. You could see it in his play. [He] was a lot more assertive and aggressive. Hopefully, that’ll carry over to next season.”

From February through the end of the season, the skilled center averaged 14.6 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 36.0 percent from downtown. His knack for finishing plays around the hoop still needs drastic improvement, but that level of involvement and his ability to spark the offense with both threes and passes is presumably why two voters bought into his upside—one voting him a low-level starter, and the other deeming him a solid starter.

6. Marvin Williams: 4.44

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 31
  • Position: PF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 11.2 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.7 blocks, 13.73 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Thank goodness the Hornets aren’t foolish enough to pigeonhole Marvin Williams into an ill-advised role as an oversized small forward. After the Atlanta Hawks used him as such for 49 percent of his minutes during his seven-year tenure (and the Utah Jazz did the same, but to an even greater extent), Charlotte has trotted him out almost exclusively as a 4. For the first time in his career, he logged exactly 0 percent of his time at the 3 in 2016-17.

It’s such a smart decision because while Williams’ limited foot speed makes him a liability against wings on the defensive end, he can more than hold his own against bigger forwards. His three best finishes in defensive box plus/minus, for example, have all come during his three seasons in the Queen City. Plus, though his three-point percentage crashed back to earth after inexplicably soaring in 2015-16, he can stretch out a defense and make up for the rest of his offensive shortcomings through sheer floor-spacing acumen.

5. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist: 4.75

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 24
  • Position: SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 9.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, 9.36 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 6 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (multiple voters)

Only six of the 16 voters viewed Michael Kidd-Gilchrist as a player not worthy of a starting job, but those who saw him merely as a depth piece dragged his overall score below the starting cutoff. Either way, he’s a valuable player when surrounded by the right players. Charlotte doesn’t possess a superior wing defender—few teams do, in fact.

However, Kidd-Gilchrist’s shooting is so abhorrent that he can wreck an offensive lineup. He’s now just 7-of-34 from beyond the arc throughout his five-year professional career, and he’s coming off a season in which he shot just nine times from deep. But he’s showing signs of improvement on long two-pointers, and that could help him supplement his slashing and transition game. Imagine if he actually does develop as a late-blooming marksman, since he’s already an overall positive even with the broken stroke.

In 2016-17, the Hornets outscored opponents by an additional 2.5 points per 100 possessions with Kidd-Gilchrist on the floor. Two years prior (we’re ignoring 2015-16, since he suited up only seven times), the net rating jumped by 12.2 when he played.

4. Cody Zeller: 5.63

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 25
  • Position: PF/C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.9 blocks, 72.22 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 3 (Brian Sampson)

Though Cody Zeller’s per-game numbers might not make him pop, his willingness to do the little things allows him to boast substantial value. Not only did he rank third throughout the league in screen assists per game (5.9), but he actually moved past Marcin Gortat and Rudy Gobert if we look at the per-36-minute-version. And we won’t stop there, because Zeller’s activity also helped him recover 1.1 loose balls per game. Among the league’s 131 players listed at 6’10” or taller, only Giannis Antetokounmpo (1.4), Blake Griffin (1.4), DeMarcus Cousins (1.2) and Kevin Love (1.2) surpassed him.

Again, Zeller reigns supreme when we adjust for playing time.

Would it be nice if the 25-year-old started expanding his shooting range and developing some skill as a distributor? Of course, and that would probably sway the two voters who didn’t give him starting grades. But even without too much more growth, he’s a valuable piece whose under-the-radar skill set allows him to mesh with so many different lineups.

3. Nicolas Batum: 5.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 28
  • Position: SG/SF
  • 2016-17 Stats: 15.1 points, 6.2 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.4 blocks, 67.83 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 4 (multiple voters)

Though a disappearing shooting stroke has pushed Nicolas Batum firmly out of All-Star contention—yes, even in the weakened Eastern Conference—he still boasts a unique set of talents that helps him post a well-rounded box score each and every night. He joined Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, James Harden, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook as one of only six players to average at least 15 points, six boards and five dimes during the 2016-17 campaign.

Obviously, Batum isn’t a superstar like the other members of that sextet. He’s not nearly as efficient and barely meets each of the three admittedly arbitrary cutoffs. But inclusion in that exclusive fraternity is still a testament to his knack for positively affecting the proceedings in numerous ways.

Perhaps playing with a fully healthy knee will allow him to elevate his ceiling back up to its pre-Charlotte levels. It’s not, after all, too late for him to experience a bounce-back season; despite already having nine NBA campaigns under his belt, in addition to plenty of international adventures, the French swingman won’t celebrate his 29th birthday until December.

2. Dwight Howard: 6.06

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 31
  • Position: C
  • 2016-17 Stats: 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.2 blocks, 102.63 TPA (for Atlanta Hawks)
  • Highest Grade: 7 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 5 (multiple voters)

Let’s turn to NBA Math’s own Adam Spinella, who wrote about the potential for a Dwight Howard renaissance with the big man and head coach Steve Clifford reuniting for the first time since they both left the Orlando Magic:

Offensively, Howard is no longer a back-to-the-basket threat or unguardable roller out of ball screens, and that’s more than okay. If he continues to wipe the offensive glass clean at as high a rate as he did in Atlanta, he’ll already be an improvement on the Hornets’ attack. His 15 percent offensive rebounding rate was a career high; last year’s Fightin’ MJ’s were in the bottom-five in the NBA in the same category, per NBA.com stats.

Howard posted outrageously efficient numbers last year for a player widely considered on the decline. A career high in two-point field-goal percentage (63.5 percent) put him in the top 10 in the league among all qualifying players. Only one player higher on that list—the Houston Rockets’ Clint Capela—took more shots per game than D-12. His usage may be dipping, and his effectiveness in the post waning, but Howard is finding ways to remain efficient, effective and somehow underrated.

Howard is no longer one of the NBA’s truly elite centers. Not a single voter was willing to peg him as an All-Star candidate, though six were comfortable labeling him a high-end starter.

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking he’s washed up.

1. Kemba Walker: 7.69

  • Age at start of 2017-18: 27
  • Position: PG
  • 2016-17 Stats: 23.2 points, 3.9 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.1 steals, 0.3 blocks, 196.6 TPA
  • Highest Grade: 8 (multiple voters)
  • Lowest Grade: 6 (Ryan Jarvis)

If we turn to NBA Math’s Play-Type Profiles, we can quickly see why Kemba Walker was so valuable on the offensive end:

This jitterbug of a point guard might not thrive in isolation, but that’s okay. He knows better than to rely on that inefficient play type, which accounted for only 6.2 percent of his offensive possessions. Instead, he ran one pick-and-roll after another (54.9 percent of his scoring possessions saw him function as a PnR ball-handler), devastating defenses as they struggled to adjust to the new scouting report.

In previous seasons, slowing Walker was a difficult enough task when he couldn’t shoot at an elite level. Defenders could drop down to cut off passing lanes and stave off the inevitable drives. Now that he’s knocking down 39.9 percent of his triples, they can no longer duck under screen. Instead, they have to challenge him and risk blow-by drives. No convincing alternative exists, which is why Walker added the fourth-most value as a PnR scorer in 2016-17.

Now that he’s firmly asserted himself as one of the league’s premier offensive weapons, defense is the diminutive floor general’s only weakness at this stage of his career.

 

Who’s rated too high? Who are we selling short? Join the conversation using #CrystalBasketball on Twitter.

Follow NBA Math on Twitter @NBA_Math and on Facebook.

Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math or NBA.com.

Many thanks to our entire panel of voters: Andrew BaileyArjun BaradwajNick BirdsongMichael BrockTony EastDan FavaleAdam FromalRyan JarvisJordan McGillisTom RendeBrian SampsonAdam SpinellaEric SpyropolousTim StubbsFrank UrbinaLouis Vicchiollo

One thought on “#CrystalBasketball: Ranking the Charlotte Hornets for 2017-18”

  1. Nicco says:

    Very appreciative that you take the time to analyze smartly and evaluate the NBA. I’m glad to finally find a smart and informative space for the NBA.

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