Two putback dunks. That’s all it took for Charlotte Hornets rookie Miles Bridges to energize the Hornets fanbase and give fans something seldom seen around the Queen City: Hope.
Hornets fans weren’t enthusiastic about Miles Bridges from the outset of his drafting. The fanbase was chiefly split on Shai Gilgious-Alexander or the talented, yet injured, Michael Porter Jr. entering June’s draft. When Gilgious-Alexander was initially selected by the Hornets, some of the fanbase was sated, only to later be confused and then angry when Gilgious-Alexander was traded to the Clippers for Bridges and some 2nd round picks.
But one has to understand that for Charlotte NBA fans cheering for a rookie is never a guarantee, take a look at the history of the draft picks. Kemba Walker eventually worked out but that took three long seasons, two head coaches and the worst winning percentage in NBA history to get there.
Since then, of the draft picks still on the roster, Michael Kidd Gilchrist has underwhelmed as the 2nd pick and consolation prize in the Anthony Davis draft, Cody Zeller is serviceable yet unspectacular, Malik Monk is an enigmatic question mark and Frank Kaminsky is battling with a returning Charlotte lottery pick Bismack Biyombo for the third center spot on the team. If there’s a place where healthy draft pick skepticism should be allowed, it’s probably Charlotte.
The Hornets haven’t had gotten a significant impact from a rookie since Emeka Okafor was drafted second in 2004. While there’s been hope before, only to see it dashed by the turn of the new year, the buzz around Bridges feels a bit different. Bridges is the action figure every kid wants at Christmas with all of the flashing lights and accessories that’ll make every other kid on the block jealous.
Bridges’ energy on the court is infectious, and while the dunks have been the highlights, he’s shown off his other skills as well. His ball-handling abilities have been impressive, and are much-needed on a team that, outside of Walker and Tony Parker, lacks creativity off the dribble. He’s a capable shooter, able to help stretch the floor, fitting another need for this Hornets roster. Offensively, he seems polished as a rookie, with a varied skillset capable of producing inside and outside, on and off the ball.
Will it translate to wins on the basketball court? Time will only tell.
Early returns are mixed because while Bridges is giving the Hornets 15 points per game on 58% from the floor and 53% from 3 in three preseason games, it’s coming at the expense of some defensive lapses and not entirely knowing where to be on the floor. While that’s okay in the preseason, it’s tiny mistakes which lose you games in the regular season, and if the Hornets are fortunate — the NBA playoffs. Preseason optimism always deserves to be taken with a grain of salt, because it takes a rare rookie to contribute to a playoff team (and the Hornets might need that if they are to get back into the conversation in the East).
The good news is, the staff is clearly buying in to Bridges’ early performance as well. His rapid rise and ability to show his varied skills has led to more trust and more responsibilities on the court. Early on in the summer, both head coach James Borrego and GM Mitch Kupchack were adamant that Bridges would strictly play shooting guard or small forward. Sunday’s game against the Celtics saw Bridges playing both forward spots and a hint of center, Tuesday’s game against the Heat saw Bridges primarily at the 4, showing a positional versatility that many expected yet at the same time not this soon.
The expectations from the fanbase for Bridges have now skyrocketed simply because of the feeling that the Hornets finally got a pick right. There’s no need to justify their selection to the team by fans, no need to rationalize their playing time thus far. Instead Hornets fans can watch, marvel and dream like every other fanbase in the NBA, shedding their natural skepticism.
It might prove to be foolish like in years past, but if Bridges contributes immediately to some above-average rookie level, he’d be the first Hornets rookie to factor into the NBA’s Rising Stars game in a decade. Bridges leaping ability also makes him a candidate for the NBA’s Slam Dunk Contest that weekend as well, offering a rare spotlight on All-Star Weekend for a Hornets player.
For the moment, being a Hornets fan isn’t as miserable an experience as it so often has been in recent years. The playoffs might actually be in reach this while at the same time there’s maybe some young players that can be foundational pieces, making the future not look as scary as it might have three months ago. There might be a light at the end of the tunnel for Hornets fans, let’s hope it’s not an oncoming train.