Orlando Magic v Charlotte Hornets

The Buzz Is Back

It has been 12 years since the Hornets were in Charlotte—but with the buzz returning, along with Al Jefferson, Kemba Walker and the arrival of Lance Stephenson—the Queen City is stoked for the beginning of a new era.

“It’s kind of scary how crazy it’s going to be,” Big Al said of opening night. “We have to go out there and be ready to play, ready to perform, so we can get that every home game.”

The aura surrounding the franchise is a stark contrast from a year ago. This time in 2013, the Bobcats were coming off a 21-61 season and a 7-59 campaign the year before that. Last summer, the franchise led by the greatest ever to play the game, Michael Jordan, brought on Steve Clifford as the new head coach and Al as a presence down low. And Big Al soon proved to be perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition in the league.

“Big Al Jefferson was just that for the Bobcats last year: big,” wrote At The Hive’s Bryan Mears. “When Charlotte brought in the former Jazz big man last summer, many analysts thought they overpaid him with a three-year, $41 million contract. However, he proved worth the deal with a Third Team All-NBA season. The question for this year will be: can he repeat it?”

The Postman averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds per game, earning All-NBA honors. He was the foundation of the team that finished 43-39, claimed the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference and was one game off the best finish since the inception of the Bobcats in 2004.

Unfortunately, Al was severely limited once Charlotte made the playoffs. After drawing defending NBA champion Miami Heat, Big Al was struck with plantar fasciitis, a painful foot injury that sidelined him while his team was eliminated in Game 4.

“It was pretty bad,” Al said of his injury. “A lot of my favorite moves I like to do (in the low post), I couldn’t do because of the foot. I could hardly run. It was painful.”

With that disappointing end to the season in his rearview and a bright and promising future ahead, Big Al is beyond anxious to show what he can do this season.

“He’s working hard. His attitude is great. I sense more of a hunger than any kind of complacency,” Clifford said of Al. “He sees what the possibilities are for the group. He’s competitive and wants to win.”

A NEW LOOK

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls

In addition to repainting the city in purple and teal, the Hornets also added an infusion of talent. While Al was the major free agency addition last year, Stephenson is that man for Charlotte this season.

Lance led the league in triple-doubles last season with five, is one of the league’s top young playmakers. He averaged 13.8 points, 7.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds last year, helping the Indiana Pacers to the East’s top seed and to the conference finals. He is also known as a tenacious defender, and it was in those East finals where he truly made his name as the type of player you don’t want to play against, but one that Big Al is glad to have on his side.

“Lance is a playmaker. That’s the reason he led the NBA in triple-doubles last year,” Big Al said. “He’s got this nastiness about his game that you want on your team. I was really excited to hear he signed with us and he wanted to do that. I think he’s got a lot to prove, and he wants to show people he can be a great superstar in this league.”

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls

When Stephenson inked his three-year $27 million deal, the league took notice, and Charlotte was instantly accepted as a contender in the East. The Brooklyn native shot 49 percent from the floor last year and missed just four games, and he figures to be a fantastic addition on offense and defense.

“This is a different home opener,” Stephenson said. “It’s a new beginning. We changed the name, and it’s a new atmosphere. I’m excited to show-out and win games.”

Charlotte parted ways with Josh McRoberts, Ramon Sessions and Chris Douglas-Roberts, but its front office made several other additions outside of Stephenson. Next on the list is power forward Marvin Williams, a former teammate of Big Al’s in Utah.

Williams could fit into a starting PF role alongside Big Al. He averaged 9.1 points and 5.1 rebounds last season. As he enters his 10th season, he is known more now as a lockdown defender on the perimeter with his strength and length, his No. 1 priority is to disrupt the opponent’s big scoring threats—and he is looking be a defensive leader on the team.

“We’ve got to compete and talk. Some of the older guys who’ve been around see things (coming), so it’s our responsibility to kind of anchor this thing,” Williams said. “We have a lot of guys who can score with the basketball. I’m fitting in at the offensive end, but I feel like I really need to set a tone on the defensive end.”

Charlotte Hornets vs Washington Wizards

The Hornets also added some help for their star point guard, Walker, in the backcourt in the form of Brian Roberts. A solid second option—and a sharp, quick point guard—Roberts averaged 9.4 points and 3.3 assists for the New Orleans Pelicans last year. He also led the league in free throw percentage last year, shooting a 94 percent clip from the line.

Rounding out the new additions are two draftees: power forward Noah Vonleh and two-guard P.J. Hairston.

Vonleh is a 6-10 post player out of Indiana, and he is seen as a prospect with an incredibly high ceiling. While he might not have the biggest immediate impact, he is seen as someone who can learn under Big Al and develop into a star down the road.

Charlotte Hornets vs Washington Wizards

“Vonleh is a big body. A young, 19-year old kid. We never thought we’d have an opportunity to get him,” Jordan said. “He kind of fell to us. He has talent that could exceed what everybody’s expectations may be.”

Meanwhile, Hairston is a young player who also has the Hornets excited. Hairston had an impressive preseason. He never eclipsed more than 23 minutes of action in one game this preseason, and scored in the double-digits six out of eight games. The first-round pick out of North Carolina has some skills to offer this Hornets team off the bench. The 6’6” rookie can fill it up from behind the three-point line—and Big Al, has been very impressed by the young guard’s play so far.

“He had to understand how to use his game into our offense,” Al said about PJ. “He’s getting better and he is much better off now than he was when we first started training camp.”

THE RETURNERS

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls

The starting core for the Hornets is highlighted by its big three: Big Al, Kemba and Lance. Walker will be at the helm once again after tallying 17.7 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game last year, and he’ll be joined in the backcourt by another versatile creator in Stephenson.

Meanwhile, The Postman will be drawing incredible defensive attention and double-teams down low. With that trio, all with tremendous scoring ability, the Hornets will be a more than capable team offensively. However, in order to succeed, defense will still remain the top priority in the eyes of Charlotte’s coach.

“We have more offensive skill than we did a year ago but still, relatively speaking, we’re not an offensive juggernaut,” Clifford said. “We’ll have to win by rebounding, defending and being smart offensively.”

That, Al says, is where Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will come in. MKG joined Charlotte out of Kentucky and had a strong rookie season, averaging nine points, nearly six rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. However, he took a step down statistically last season, seeing his averages drop in all three categories. However, this offseason, the 6-7 swingman re-dedicated himself and Big Al believes he has made major strides toward where he wants to be.

Washington Wizards v Charlotte Hornets

“MKG is the captain of our defense,” Al said. “He showed the perfect example of how if you lock yourself up in the gym the whole summer and work on the things you need to work on, you can get better. And he proved that…That shows the type of player he’s going to be.”

If Kidd-Gilchrist is as improved as No. 25 expects, he’ll add another lethal threat for the Hornets on both ends of the floor. But perhaps even more valuable than MKG’s uptick will be the talent returning to the Charlotte bench.

Roberts and Hairston will join two talented scorers in Gerald Henderson and Gary Neal in the guard rotation. Henderson started 77 games for Charlotte last year, averaging 14 points, four rebounds and 2.6 assists per game. This year he’ll embrace more of a sixth-man role, and his experience will be pivotal to leading the second team when the starting squad is resting.

“I know what’s expected of me,” Henderson explained. “I just have to play as hard as I can and as smart as I can, and just see what happens.”

Meanwhile, after a phenomenal preseason, Neal will also provide a major boost to the second unit. The Baltimore native is a threat from anywhere on the floor and shot more than 40 percent from three for Charlotte a season ago, but Clifford sees him as much more than just a heat-check shooter.

Charlotte Hornets v Atlanta Hawks

“With all the work he [Gary] did in the summer, Gary is just ahead of most of our guys – that and his basketball IQ and skill level,” Clifford said. “People view him as a spot-up shooter, and he’s a lot more than that.”

While the backcourt has a wealth of options, the frontcourt is looking strong as well. Big Al will be backed up by second-year player Cody Zeller. The 7-footer is coming off a solid rookie season and will continue to develop and see his role expand next to Al, particularly with the departure of McRoberts.

“Cody’s not a back-to-the basket buy like myself,” Al said. “But when he does play the 5 and get in position, when he does get the ball in the post, he’ll either know how to face up, bounce it and go to a jump hook or whatever move he decides to go to.”

Charlotte Hornets Media Day

While his talent is certainly there, the former Indiana star still has a lot to learn from The Postman.

“I don’t know if anyone will be able to match that. That’s his go-to,” Zeller said of Al’s lethal pump fake. “I’ve been around him for a year now, and I went for his shot fake on the first play today. I still go for it.”

EASTBOUND AND UP

New changes to the Hornets aren’t the only thing that transpired over the summer, especially in the East. LeBron James went back home to Cleveland, Paul Pierce is in Washington, the Knicks front office is under the tutelage of 11-time NBA Champion Phil Jackson and new head coach Derek Fisher, Paul George is out for Indy, and Derrick Rose is in for Chicago.

While Charlotte will be the most different team at first glance, the teams across the league will still look down low and see the same, dominant Al Jefferson.

Through his first 10 seasons, Al has never made an All-Star game, though he claimed All-NBA honors after a torrid second half last year. While individual accolades are never really on Big Al’s mind, he believes a continued emphasis on defense, ingrained in his conscience by Clifford last year, is exactly what he needs to solidify himself as one of the league’s elite post men.

“I want to sacrifice and dedicate myself to coach’s system,” Al said. “Coach Clifford has made me believe in myself defensively, and I know that teams are going to have to respect me and the team more.”

Charlotte Hornets v Chicago Bulls

As a team, the Hornets will look to continue their climb up the ranks in the Eastern Conference. Winning 50-plus games and claiming one of the top four seeds are both realistic objectives, as well as advancing past the first round of the playoffs.

It’ll be an extremely busy opening slate for Charlotte. The Hornets play 18 games through their first month, leaving little time for practice. That, Al says, will force his team to learn and develop chemistry on the fly.

“We’re just taking it one game at a time,” No. 25 said. “We’re not going to have a lot of practice time, but we’re just trying to take what we’ve learned in training camp and just go out there every game and learn from it.”

Charlotte starts off with a pair of home games, the first coming Wednesday night against the Milwaukee Bucks.

Big Al and Co. are set for a 7 p.m. ET tip from Time Warner Cable Arena. The game will be broadcast on SportSouth.

“It’s very exciting to get it started It’s good to get things going,” Big Al said. “We have a big month ahead of us, and it’s time to attack it.”

RELATED ARTICLES

1 Comment
  1. Emerson Badessa October 31, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Great read Tarek! Hornets look like a solid team this year. Got the offensive punch of Kemba and Big Al and defensive pressure from MKG and Lance. Intriguing depth on the bench too. Wouldn’t be surpirsed at all if Charlotte takes a top 4 playoff spot in the East.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Archives