Patience paying off for Hornets’ Kai Jones. Mark Williams hopeful to follow similar path

Picking up on certain routines and finding ways to flourish and ease the transition to the professional ranks can be a huge determinant for younger players.

So far, Mark Williams is acing his post-collegiate exam.

Taking full advantage of each stint in the G League with the Greensboro Swarm is at the forefront of Williams’ mind as he awaits his time to contribute as part of the Hornets’ main roster, and the rookie center isn’t playing around. He torched the opposition, and in his most recent appearances with the Swarm, Williams averaged 31.5 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. And he shot 66.7% from the floor, nailing all but 7-of-23 attempts.

“I thought I did pretty well,” Williams told The Charlotte Observer after practice on Wednesday. “I’ve just got to make the most of the opportunity. Go down there, dominate, show the pro that I am and I try to do that. There’s nothing like playing five-on-five. It’s good to get in a flow, get into rhythm and be able to play, go and down and do that.

“I just got to make the most of the opportunity when I’m out there, just try to work on my game. Work on the defensive principles and stuff like that, so whenever the opportunity comes, I’ll be ready for it. So, I’m just making the most of it.”

Drafted in June to help solve the issues the Hornets have had finding the right big man, Williams finds himself behind starter Mason Plumlee and backup Nick Richards in coach Steve Clifford’s lineup pecking order. His lone action with the Hornets has been in mop-up duty after the outcome was decided and as they groom him for a larger role. The organization believes it’s more prudent to shuffle him to Greensboro on occasion.

It’s similar to what they’ve done with plenty of their draft picks. Kai Jones and Nick Richards are among the most recent examples, and Williams is hopeful of following in their footsteps patiently waiting his turn.

“It does two things,” Clifford said. “Great for his confidence and most importantly it keeps him in rhythm. It’s hard to not play five-on-five and then have to play in an NBA game when you haven’t played for six weeks, so I think it’s a great experience.”

Williams’ pick-and-roll defense remains a work in progress and is something that must continue to be smoothed over prior to him being fully inserted into the Hornets’ rotation. Multiple times since the preseason, Clifford has pointed out the challenges associated with bringing an inexperienced big man up to speed on the intricacies of the league’s oldest play.

A strategical breakdown by one person can have catastrophic consequences, and it’s something Williams is learning in his educational on-the-job training.

“Yeah, it’s different,” Williams said. “The spacing is a lot different so a lot of our principles — whether we’re switching, whether we’re blitzing, whether we are in a drop whatever. I just think the NBA in general is different than college basketball. So just being able to adjust to that, I feel like I’ve been doing pretty well with that so far.”

Tightening up defensively. Running the floor. Setting good screens to free teammates. Serving as a rim protector and making players think twice when penetrating into the lane. Communicating.

That and more is all on Williams’ agenda when he hones his skills in the G League.

“At the end of the day it’s not like when I’m there I can do anything about it,” Williams said. “You’ve just got to make the most of it, turn it into a positive and just go out there and play basketball.

“It’s definitely great for your confidence, going there, playing there, playing well. It’s definitely great for your confidence to go there and show what you are capable of.”

Kai Jones maturing quickly

Hold up one hand and count the number of fingers. That matches the amount of consecutive games Kai Jones has appeared in, by far the best and most important stretch of his young career.

Jones is receiving some minutes as the third center and has been thrust into the lineup at power forward more than once as well, signaling a slow transition for the 21-year-old. He’s topped 21 minutes of action in each of his past two outings, becoming entrenched into the rotation after being mostly an afterthought for the better portion of the season’s first month-plus.

Making that transition rapidly shows Jones’ maturation.

“It’s not challenging at all,” he said. “We go over it every day in practice so it’s just translating it from practice to the game. And I know that coach will be watching, so just showing him that I know what I’m doing on the court when we practice to give him the trust in me when the game time comes. So, it’s just being consistent with that.”

Charlotte Hornets guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) and Charlotte Hornets forward Kai Jones (23) celebrate during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.
Charlotte Hornets guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) and Charlotte Hornets forward Kai Jones (23) celebrate during a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, N.C., Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.

Quickly, Jones is developing a bond with Clifford. Their chemistry blossomed even more after the sudden uptick in minutes, an indicator to Jones that a promise by Clifford is indeed just that.

“To me, it just shows he’s keeping up his end of the bargain,” Jones said. “He told me, ‘Kai you’ve just got to show me the consistency in practice.’ So, it shows me he’s a man of his word, and I can trust him. So it gives me that trust in coach just like he’s trusting in me.

“It makes the relationship more genuine and because we are just being real about what we are doing here. So that’s the good part of it. Hopefully, we can continue to take those strides in the relationship and that will translate onto the court and make us a better team.”

Nothing bad about Maledon

Three years after one Frenchman wearing No. 9 came off the bench to provide some solid minutes, the Hornets have another in their midst doing the same exact thing. And it has been needed.

Théo Maledon has turned out to be an integral cog for Clifford given all the shuffling he’s had to do in their backcourt due to injuries to LaMelo Ball, Cody Martin, Dennis Smith Jr. and even Terry Rozier. The four haven’t been available for a combined 52 games, putting a strain on the guard spot.

Maledon stepped in and has been more than adequate, effectively taking on the added burden.

“It’s for sure a huge confidence boost,” Maledon said. “Just not being there for preseason and just getting in with the team and just being able to do what I’m doing right now is a great feeling, and I just want it to keep going and have that same mentality for sure.”

In averaging 5.4 points, 2.5 assists and 2.4 rebounds in the 19 games he has appeared in this season, Maledon has displayed his full repertoire. He’s shot the ball well while utilizing a good mix of moves going to the basket with a nice midrange/long game.

He’s been a playmaker with an all-around arsenal and efficient in more than one aspect.

Charlotte Hornets guard Theo Maledon (9) tries to drive past Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Charlotte Hornets guard Theo Maledon (9) tries to drive past Boston Celtics guard Marcus Smart (36) during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Monday, Nov. 28, 2022, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

“I think it’s one of my strengths,” Maledon said. “I think my biggest strength is just my mindset and just trusting myself and whatever I’m able to do. So, I think it’s something I’ve just always had, and just trusting my work and waiting for the opportunity to come and to show it and prove it and earn the trust of my teammates and my coaches.”

He’s grateful for the level of encouragement they’ve shown since he arrived in October.

“Yeah, for sure,” Maledon said. “All great guys that want to see everybody win. It’s something I really appreciate. Even when I just got in they were helpful and to have me like a teammate, so while doing those performances, they were always there to cheer me up, to make sure I keep being aggressive, keep that same mentality, be there on defense. D. Smith, a great defensive player that always gets on me to try to get some deflections, and some steals and do all that because at the end of the day that’s winning basketball. That’s what you want to produce.”

Since he’s signed to a two-way contract and has a maximum number of days he’s allowed to spend on the main roster, Maledon’s good play could have some long-term ramifications. The Hornets have an open roster slot, but that would be gobbled up by Miles Bridges should the two sides agree to a reunion at some point over the coming weeks.

Although a potential roster crunch is not ideal, at least this can be considered a good problem for the Hornets and one they likely weren’t expecting.

“I’m not Melo or T.R.,” Maledon said. “I’m a whole different player, but I just try to bring my game into it and help the team and bring my mentality to the team so that we can get chances to win.”

Doing that while also enjoying another potential deep run by defending champion France in this year’s World Cup is enough to get a smile out of the usually stoic 21-year-old.

“It’s a little bit different because games are like at 12, 10 (a.m.),” Maledon said. “I’m actually working out and watching the game at the same time. Nah, it feels good qualifying for the final stages. So we’ve just got to hope it keeps going.”