On Wednesday night, the Charlotte Hornets (4-6) will host the Memphis Grizzlies (3-7) as both teams are under similar circumstances.
When the Hornets and Grizzlies hook up on Wednesday night, it should be a measuring-stick game for both squads. Within a week of each other, both teams parted ways with their star point guards this past offseason, each of whom had been the foundation of their respective franchises for years. Both teams have seen their success tail off in the past couple seasons, and now both have rebuilds well underway. Wednesday’s matchup will be hugely important for the Hornets, as it’ll give them their first opportunity to gauge their rebuild relative to another team in the same situation.
Young point guards have been at the head of both rebuilds
With the second pick in this summer’s NBA draft, the Grizzlies selected point guard Ja Morant out of Murray State. Had Zion Williamson not been in the same draft class, he more than likely would’ve been the top pick. Fortunately for Memphis, they got their point guard of the future. In college, Morant proved that his combination of athletic ability, basketball smarts, and craftiness give him an enormous (albeit raw) amount of potential. It’s no surprise that Morant has broken out as Memphis’ best player, however, it’s Charlotte’s young point guard that has been the big surprise.
During his rookie year with the Hornets, Devonte’ Graham played just 676 minutes all season, and started just three games. He spent most of the season bouncing back and forth between the Hornets and their G-League affiliate, the Greensboro Swarm. After Tony Parker and Kemba Walker departed this past offseason, a door was opened for Graham–and he hasn’t looked back. Through 10 games, the second-year point guard is already a legitimate candidate for Most Improved, and perhaps even the Sixth Man award.
When the season tipped off, Morant received much of the national spotlight among rookies, and rightfully so. Graham on the other hand, received very little publicity–even in Hornets media coverage. Prior to Wednesday’s game, the two young guards have almost identical stat lines. Graham is averaging 17.9 points per game, while Morant is just barely behind, at 17.8. Morant, one of college basketball’s best rebounding guards last year, is averaging 3.6 boards per game this year–the exact same as Graham. Steal and block averages are also very similar between the two, however, Graham has the leg up as a facilitator. So far, he is averaging almost 2.5 more assists per game than Morant, while averaging a turnover-and-a-half less than his counterpart. All that being said, the Graham-Morant matchup should be an extremely fun one to watch tonight as well as in the future.
Both teams have an abundance of veteran big men
Aside from the impressive young point guards, the Hornets and Grizzlies both have rosters filled with veteran big men. For the Hornets, these players include Cody Zeller, Marvin Williams, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and others. On the opposite bench, Memphis carries the likes of Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, and Jonas Valanciunas. It wouldn’t be surprising to see any of those names get traded at some point this season.
For Charlotte, Williams and Zeller have played well and have been key contributors to the Hornets’ success, however, their impact doesn’t stop on the court. They have become leaders of a young Hornets roster, and have already had a positive impact on young forwards PJ Washington and Miles Bridges. Zeller is under contract through the end of next season, and Williams will be a free-agent this offseason. Neither of their long-term futures are clear with the organization, although Zeller appears likely to stay in Charlotte through at least next season. There’s a good chance Williams either departs or is traded before the end of this season.
For Charlotte, contention is far off, but competition is not
Neither club is expected to contend for anything other than lottery picks for the next few seasons, however, the Hornets in particular have shown a lot of fight this season. They’re just 4-6, but have only suffered one game in which it got out of hand early. At the start of the season, Charlotte lost to both teams in Los Angeles on back-to-back nights, but had it not been for flat fourth-quarter performances in both games, each would’ve come down to the wire. Likewise, Sunday’s loss against the 76ers in Philadelphia never had the feel that the Hornets would win, but they hung around the entire game and gave the Sixers a scare at the end of the game.
Nobody expected Charlotte to win many games this year, but if James Borrego can keep drawing a full effort out of his team, they may just sneak into the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, most of their losses have come in the form of blowouts, and as a result of a strong Western Conference, they are very unlikely to make the playoffs this season. Regardless of what happens in tonight’s game, the contest will give each team an early gauge of their rebuild’s success.