Jalen McDaniels’ career night was an improv lesson for Hornets in must-win game at OKC

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Rick Bonnell
·3 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

When Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego tells a reserve to stay ready, there’s no excuse not to heed.

Borrego is the 11th head coach in franchise history. If anything makes his approach distinctive, it’s his willingness to improvise and experiment.

Wednesday’s 113-102 road victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder is a prime example. The Hornets were coming off a 30-point loss Sunday to the Boston Celtics and are missing three key offensive players: LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk. Borrego said Tuesday he spent two off days considering how to “reshape” and “reform” what’s left of Charlotte’s roster.

That wasn’t just talk. Borrego switched P.J. Washington from power forward to center to start this game and inserted Jalen McDaniels into the starting lineup. Then, he expanded center Cody Zeller’s minutes as a reserve and benched Bismack Biyombo, who had started the previous 10 games.

McDaniels scored a career-high 21 points. Zeller finished with 15 points and 14 rebounds. And the 26-24 Hornets won a game that felt like a must in this playoff race.

Starting McDaniels and increasing Zeller’s role isn’t some eureka! solution. It’s quite possible Borrego will have to devise three or four other temporary fixes between now and when the injuries heal. But his creative thinking Wednesday was impressive.

“We’re not afraid to make those (game-to-game) moves. Whatever is necessary for us to move forward, I’m willing to try,” Borrego said.

‘Equity and credibility’

Borrego has had this approach from his first game coaching the Hornets 2 1/2 years ago. He believes this has created an “equity and credibility” with the players at the end of the bench that keeps them attentive and ready.

McDaniels is an excellent example. Chosen near the end of the 2019 draft, McDaniels was intriguing for his 6-foot-10 length and athletic grace. But he was a long way from an NBA player, spending most of his rookie season with the G-League Greensboro Swarm.

Development specialist Nick Friedman focused on McDaniels, both refining skills and building up his confidence. McDaniels was briefly in the Hornets’ rotation to start the season, then got bumped out of playing time by the crowd at the forward spots.

Borrego constantly reminded McDaniels he hadn’t failed, rather that his loss of minutes was circumstantial.

“This was not a Jalen McDaniels problem,” Borrego said. “This was a positional logjam.”

Circumstance has now swung dramatically in the opposite direction. With all these injuries, Borrego is scrambling to fabricate points. Borrego told McDaniels on Wednesday morning he’d make his second start of the season.

“He told me, ‘Go out there and be yourself,’ ” McDaniels said. “I think I did exactly what he told me, and beyond.”

Cody Zeller’s stoic approach

It made perfect sense to increase Zeller’s role in a situation where the Hornets were desperate for points — not just because Zeller can score but because his high-post passing can make a diminished offense look less clunky.

Zeller played 28 minutes Wednesday, by far the most among Charlotte non-starters. He has come to understand that playing for Borrego is to expect the unexpected.

“He’ll try a little bit of everything,” Zeller said, “to find something that works.”

Wednesday, finding something was increasing McDaniels’ and Zeller’s role. Friday against the Milwaukee Bucks, it could be something else entirely.

Right now, this is about improv, and that’s proven to be Borrego’s specialty.