What James Bouknight did vs Toronto shows the Charlotte Hornets need to play him more

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Something just isn’t right.

Hefty deficits have been the norm in the last two games for the Charlotte Hornets. They’ve drawn technical fouls. And they’ve accumulated ejections in consecutive outings.

Most of their frustrations can be directly attributed to one thing.

“Just starting the game off playing defense,” Mason Plumlee said. “We tried to turn it on there at the start of the third quarter, but we definitely dug ourselves a hole. So we’ve just got to have four quarters of defense.”

That hasn’t happened lately for the Hornets, certainly not in their 125-113 loss to Toronto at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night. Yielding 76 first-half points and allowing the Raptors to post a 39-point opening quarter had the Hornets in constant catch-up mode — like their defense somehow got caught up in customs and didn’t cross the border with them into Canada.

While it’s still too early to get overly concerned, given how they’ve built a smallish cushion that has them bubbled into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, the Hornets (26-22) aren’t doing themselves any favors dropping games to teams that are jockeying around them for positioning. They are spiraling in the wrong direction on the heels of their since-forgotten three-game win streak. The trend continued against the Raptors with Gordon Hayward sitting out for the second straight game nursing discomfort in his right foot.

“Well, I don’t have any excuse for (not having) Gordon,” coach James Borrego said. “We’ve just got to move on. It’s next man up. We’ve got enough here to get it done, so we’ve got to perform better. Other guys have got to step up. That’s the bottom line.

“These guys want minutes. They are capable of playing and now it’s about making the most of these opportunities. That’s where we are at. So we miss Gordon, but this is not a ‘Woe is me.’ Next man up. Everybody wants minutes. Here’s your opportunity. Make the most of it.”

Without the services of Hayward, paired with Jalen McDaniels remaining sidelined due to a sprained left ankle, it pushed others into the rotation to eat up some of those available minutes. James Bouknight was one of the main recipients, garnering meaningful action in both games. That’s a silver lining in the Hornets’ maddening 72-hour span, particularly with their rookie showing those brilliant flashes that continuously leaves people salivating for more.

Shaking off the rough offensive outing he turned in against Atlanta on Sunday, Bouknight had an electric stretch in the second quarter, pumping in 13 of his 18 points in 10 minutes. The Hornets couldn’t muster much offensively and went through a lengthy scoring drought. Bouknight fueled their effort to climb back into it.

“I mean it feels good, of course,” Bouknight said. “Just staying ready and taking advantage of every opportunity I’m given. And whether that’s five minutes, whether that’s 25 minutes, just staying ready.”

Who knows how things would have turned out if Bouknight didn’t heed that mantra.

“I thought Bouk was aggressive,” Borrego said. “I liked his game tonight. I thought he was aggressive. I thought Bouk played well. I felt him out there. I thought there was urgency. Offensively, defensively, he was engaged.”

A little verbal reinforcement could go a long way in keeping Bouknight’s confidence from wavering. Borrego’s encouragement was met with full appreciation.

“That means the world,” Bouknight said. “It’s a saying that even when you are working in the darkness there’s always somebody watching you. And I think he’s been seeing me in the gym these past couple of months since I’ve been here for real. And he knows that I’ve put the work in and he knows that I’ve been ready. And to hear him say that today is great, just going into the game and trying to set a tone on defense because that’s something that people don’t really know me for.”

Bouknight is in a unique position and it’s caused great debate among the team’s fan base. They are mostly used to seeing their first-round selection learning on the job, playing immediately. That happened for the guys the Hornets selected in the opening round of the team’s other draft classes in their four years under the guidance of general manager Mitch Kupchak.

Not since the early days of Malik Monk’s career has a Hornets’ lottery pick played as sparingly. So when Bouknight gets actual court time that means something. His play was much-needed against the Raptors, who carved the Hornets up with relative ease. Bouknight’s line could, and probably should, be enough to earn him more game action even when Hayward does return. In a season where virtually every key player has lost a bout with COVID, landing them in the league’s health and safety protocols, Bouknight is a rarity.

The 21-year-old has yet to be forced to sit out due to injury or sickness, only racking up DNP-Coach’s decision as he shuffles back and forth to Greensboro to keep his skillset sharpened with some G League action. But the type of spark he provided against Toronto can’t be overlooked and it should give the Hornets even more confidence to trust him out there to inject some youthful enthusiasm on occasion.

“This is just all a testament to the type of teammates I have – they tell me to stay ready – and a coaching staff that believes in me, and a front office that really wants to see me be successful,” Bouknight said. “So kudos to them. I really put this performance … I give them all the credit.”

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