Why the Hornets will ‘look hard’ at rookie Vernon Carey the rest of this NBA season

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

Late in each Charlotte Hornets season, coach James Borrego opens up the rotation to see what a second-round rookie has got.

Three seasons ago, it was Devonte Graham. Last March, it was Jalen McDaniels. Friday, it was emphatically Vernon Carey Jr.

“Based on what I saw tonight, I’ve got to look very hard at Vernon” the rest of the season, Borrego said, after Carey’s NBA debut as a starter.

Carey was stunningly good with 21 points on 9-of-14 shooting, plus six rebounds.

The Hornets selected former the former Duke center early in the second round of the 2020 NBA Draft, and prior to Friday he had amassed all of 33 minutes. He played 35 minutes in the 130-115 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, and totally looked like he belonged.

Carey learned Friday morning that he was starting, even though the decision had been made the night before. Borrego didn’t want Carey fretting all night instead of sleeping.

As Borrego said after the game, Carey seemed utterly unfazed by the news at morning walk-through. He played that way, making his first four shots.

Carey was always intriguing offensively. The question was how he’d handle the complexities of NBA pick-and-roll defense. He survived at that end Friday, finishing the game with five fouls.

Carey belongs to a rookie class that has been particularly hindered by the pandemic. There was none of the normal lead time between the draft and training camp, and virtually no practice time this season. Also, the G-League, the foundation of the Hornets’ development program, was squeezed into a month in a bubble in Orlando, Florida.

“They didn’t have a chance,” said Hornets forward Miles Bridges, who scored a career-high 33 points Friday. “No summer league and no draft combine” to smooth the transition to the NBA.

“I kind of knew what he was capable of, because I saw him in college.”

Watching, drilling, waiting

Carey was patient, looking for ways to improve. Assistant coach Dutch Gaitley has been his primary contact point in drills and in the 3-on-3 or 4-on-4 games among those Hornets who don’t play regularly.

Borrego clearly hasn’t been happy all season with his center options. He flip-flopped between Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, then took the leap of going small with 6-foot-7 P.J. Washington as starting center, trying to energize the offense.

Injuries have ravaged the Hornets. Five rotation players — Graham, Washington, LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward and Malik Monk — all missed Friday’s game. If there was ever a time to explore an outlier, it was Friday against the Nets, an Eastern Conference contender.

Borrego is nothing if not improvisational. He didn’t just play Carey, he started him. The results were such that Zeller never entered the game Friday.

What does Carey think drew Borrego’s attention?

“Showcasing what I did in the G-League,” Carey guessed, “and working every day. Just showing my feel for the game. I think that played into me starting today.”

Carey averaged 27 minutes on Disney’s campus in the 14 games he played with the Greensboro Swarm. He averaged 16 points and 9.4 rebounds.

Those numbers, and his Duke pedigree, got some Hornets fans agitated that Borrego didn’t play Carey sooner. Maybe some of that criticism has merit, but it lacks context.

Everything about this season is weird

COVID-19 has disrupted everything about this season. It blew up the off-season. It shortened and compressed the regular season. It forced players out of their normal sleep patterns for twice-a-day testing.

And it limited everything about practice, shootaround and development.

To think that wouldn’t weigh in Borrego’s willingness to play second-rounders, particularly with the Hornets in a playoff race, is disregarding the obvious. So if Borrego waited too long to test Carey, it’s explainable.

Now, there are 17 regular-season games left to explore what Carey has got. If he ends up emulating Graham and McDaniels as a starter, they’ve got a lot.

Bridges is sold.

“I love him as a kid,” Bridges said. “And I love him as a basketball player.”