Why Jalen McDaniels is a shining product of Hornets’ development focus and investment

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

So much has changed in the three years since Mitch Kupchak and James Borrego took over the Charlotte Hornets’ basketball operation.

No shift has been more fruitful than the raised focus on development.

The Hornets completed a 4-2 road trip Friday with a 127-119 road victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. The Hornets are winning with three of their most talented players — Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball and Malik Monk — all hurt.

Friday they started two former second-round picks — Devonte Graham and Jalen McDaniels — and a third second-rounder, Cody Martin, played 13 minutes off the bench. Each of those guys delivered because they’re thoroughly prepared for these moments.

“It’s really transformed our organization,” coach Borrego said of the development emphasis.

It’s spending money on the G-League affiliate in Greensboro. It’s selling Hornets owner Michael Jordan on hiring development specialist Nick Friedman. It’s general manager Kupchak viewing picks outside the first round as assets, not afterthoughts.

It’s an approach Borrego witnessed as a San Antonio Spurs assistant. The Spurs’ build-out of their G-League affiliate in Austin was a model for the rest of the NBA.

Borrego says development can’t work without great synergy: As in the Hornets and Greensboro Swarm having identical playbooks and aligned philosophies: Whether the Swarm wins or loses a game isn’t particularly important. It’s whether guys like Graham three seasons ago and McDaniels and Martin last season were accelerated into NBA viability.

Jalen McDaniels was prepared for the moment

McDaniels was anything but a sure bet when the Hornets selected him 52nd among 60 picks in the 2019 draft. The 6-foot-10 McDaniels had length and athleticism coming out of San Diego State, but he was absurdly skinny at 185 pounds in his first Charlotte training camp and needed refinement in his offensive skills.

Borrego got clearance in the fall of 2019 to hire Friedman as a developmental liaison, commuting with young players between Charlotte and Greensboro. Friedman was tasked with making sure McDaniels and the Martin twins got daily tutoring that other coaches didn’t have time to provide.

Friedman’s role has changed somewhat this season, with the G-League season abbreviated by the pandemic. But Friedman is still bird-dogging McDaniels’ development and provided an opportune reminder a few days ago.

“Me and Nick were talking about how it could happen any time,” McDaniels said of being thrust into a major role. “Two games later I was starting. He wasn’t lying!”

McDaniels delivered. In back-to-back starts against the Thunder and the Bucks, McDaniels averaged 20 points, five rebounds and four assists. In those games he shot 16-of-25 from the field and 5-of-9 from 3-point range.

No more second-round blow-offs

Prior to Kupchak’s and Borrego’s arrival, the Hornets didn’t place much value on picks outside the first round. Then-general manager Rich Cho frequently used second-round picks as commodities, packaging them in deals for veterans at the trade deadline.

Small forward Jeff Taylor hanging around the fringes of Charlotte’s rotation between 2012 and 2015 was the closest the Hornets came back then to developing a second-round pick.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Cho was wrong and Kupchak is right; there are legitimately different ways to build an NBA roster.

However, Kupchak’s history running the Los Angeles Lakers programmed him to scour for second-round talent. Those Lakers teams won so much that Kupchak was constantly picking in the 30s through 50s, so added focus on the back half of the draft was essential.

That might also explain why Kupchak has made just one in-season trade in his three Charlotte seasons, the one that acquired Brad Wanamaker from Golden State without giving up a future pick.

Kupchak is clearly more reluctant than Cho was to give up a pick to rent a veteran. If you wonder why, glance at McDaniels’ stats the past two games.

That explains plenty about what the Hornets value, and also why they’re three games above .500 in April.