With one preseason game remaining followed by nearly a week until their regular-season opener, James Borrego has a decision to make.
His team is banged up a bit and hasn’t been whole in more than a week, and the Hornets are still going to be minus the services of Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre most likely when they host Dallas at Spectrum Center on Wednesday. The Charlotte coach has to figure out the best way to prepare his team while also doing his best to ensure they are as healthy as possible when games begin counting for real next week.
It’s one of the things he wrestles with as the Hornets close their preseason against the Mavericks.
“There’s not a perfect science,” Borrego said Tuesday. “We’ve got to be careful in how we do this. They’re still getting in shape and I think they are starting to get their legs underneath them. And I want to continue that momentum. This is what the regular season looks like. We’ve got to be smart in how we approach it. We don’t want to get anyone injured or hurt.
“ ... My hope is that they continue to grow in their conditioning. We only have four preseason games and we have almost a full week off there before we play the last game. So this will be the last true run they get out there in game-time action before opening night.”
That should include Mason Plumlee. He cleared the league’s health and safety protocols after being sidelined for the last week and is expected to be available.
“He’s going to get some run tomorrow,” Borrego said. “I’ll get him some run. He needs to get out there and feel the burn again and get going.”
Few positions in the rotation were up for grabs when the Hornets began training camp two weeks ago. Everything for the most part was already locked in, save for some spots on the back end.
Several are in the mix and have stated their case in their own way.
“They’ve made it tough on us,” Borrego said.
Here’s a look at three in particular who could help their cause with a solid performance against the Mavericks:
Entering his third season, he’s battling for minutes at backup wing with James Bouknight. The Hornets like Bouknight, their first-round pick, and he’s bound to collect his share of minutes once the staff feels comfortable enough to.
Martin’s lunch-pail mentality, along with his grit, defensive awareness and hustle are his major strengths and those are what constantly keep his name in the conversation. He understands the importance of continuously showcasing his skills in preseason action.
“All of these games, you got to plan like they all matter,” he said. “Regardless if they count towards the regular season or not, because it’s going to prep us for the season. You know, guys like myself and just everybody in general, we have to have that mentality regardless. Whoever is playing and whoever is not playing, we just got to be able to step up. Next man up and just be able to play and find ways to win.”
Developing during his rookie season was tough for the University of Kentucky product. He didn’t have an opportunity to become acclimated to the system, staff or rigors of the NBA in general because his rookie year was such a whirlwind.
With the draft taking place five months later than usual and no chance to be assimilated into the pro life slowly since there was no summer league, Richards’ ability to pick things up was severely hampered. The league’s rapid-fire offseason paired with a lack of a complete G League season essentially foiled Richardson’s first season.
He was a member of the Hornets’ summer league team in August and displayed enough to catch the staff’s eye. They want to see if he can consistently provide rim protection, rebounding, defense and also finish in the paint. PJ Washington will eat up a lot of the minutes at backup center behind Plumlee, but there may be a spot for another big man. That is where Richards could come into play. He’s made strides and understands that has to continue.
“I’m happy with the little steps I’ve taken,” Richards said. “I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m proud of where I’m at right now because I know this is not the finish line for me. Obviously, I want to get better, I want to be a Hall of Famer. I want to be known as one of the best basketball players to ever come out of Jamaica. I’m just trying to set a trend for the people in my county to be able to say, ‘Oh, if I could do it, anybody from my country can do it.’ But that’s just in my mind and the stepping stones that I’ve got to do.”
His length and athleticism, coupled with an improving stroke from 3-point range, puts him at the very top of the list of candidates for one of the first players Borrego summons off the bench.
Quietly, he’s had a nice training camp. In three games, he has averaged 8.3 points and 5.7 rebounds in 26.3 minutes. The trick now is to maintain that same level of ascension he’s shown throughout the preseason.
He’s certainly earned Borrego’s praise in the meantime.
“Everything I’ve seen to this point in camp says he’s got to play,” Borrego said recently. “And he’s got to play minutes. But it’s up to him to keep those minutes and continue to put pressure on us to put him out there.”