It was in the fourth quarter and the guy who almost single-handedly won a game earlier in the season with a late surge found himself on the floor in the waning seconds Friday.
Except Ish Smith hadn’t been summoned to ignite the Charlotte Hornets on this particular occasion, a night they were missing their starting center due to a calf strain. Smith was on the court with two first-round picks who’ve quickly become fan favorites, basically getting in a light run with the outcome locked up and the Hornets running past Minnesota 133-115 at Spectrum Center for their eighth win in their past nine games.
In year’s past, that Friday night scene probably would have seemed far-fetched for a variety of reasons. But with a roster oozing with versatile depth, giving them multiple options at every position, the surging Hornets have assembled a cast that has to abide by their adopted mantra — stay ready.
“You’ve just got to always stay ready,” Smith said. “Hopefully it’s an example of being a pro. You are always fine-tuning and sharpening yourself. When coach puts me in for extended minutes, then I’ve got to do and what I do and did earlier in the year. But until then, you come in, you set the pace, you defend, you guard, you do what you’ve got to do so when coach calls your number ...”
For the Hornets (13-8) to keep the trajectory of their season moving in the right direction, that motto is going to have to be a common refrain for everyone, and they have to ensure that it’s more than just lip service. With the exception of inexperienced rookies James Bouknight and Kai Jones, everyone else has had an opportunity to contribute in a major way. And may again in the future.
Smith. Nick Richards. Kelly Oubre. Jalen McDaniels.
Some have had more sporadic minutes than others, and they can fluctuate under coach James Borrego, depending on strategy, game flow, foul trouble and other factors.
Richards is in that category. The second-year big man, who played 14 minutes against the Timberwolves, likely isn’t completely sure if he is going to get in the game or not. He’s received a “DNP-coach’s decision” designation twice in the past seven games and hasn’t gotten off the bench five times overall.
“I think that’s the hardest thing to do in the NBA — is to be in that situation where you don’t play one game and then coach puts you in the next game,” Gordon Hayward said. “So, I give credit to all the guys that did that. Our bench guys, they’ve stayed ready all year and tonight they were huge. Obviously, Kelly, but Nick, Jalen, Ish.
“Cody Martin’s been great for us all year, too. I don’t think people understand how hard it is to do that. Mentally, physically, you got to be over there, staying ready. You might not get in. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. So, they’re doing tremendous. Give them a lot of credit.”
There is a constant, open dialogue between the individuals and Borrego. He underscored the importance of listening, humanizing and, at times, maybe even empathizing in what can be difficult situations. Everybody wants to play — or play more — and conversations are needed to break down the rationale regarding lineups, rotations and substitution patterns.
“It’s a normal thing with your guys, is just communicating with them,” Borrego said. “They are not always going to agree with you or like what you say. But the No. 1 thing in this league is you’ve got to communicate and be honest with them. It’s just managing people. You call it coaching, but it’s just managing people, individuals. And that’s what we try to do. I try to do my best to communicate before the game, after the game, and if there’s or there’s uncertainty, we deal with it. ...
“Yeah, we’ve got a number of bodies now that can play and we’ve got a couple of rookies that would like to play and I can’t play them. It’s just the reality right now and that’s OK. It’s where we are at in this process and we’ll navigate our way through it. It’s a long season, but that’s a good problem to have. That shows our depth. There are a number of guys that are ready to play.”
Smith is among them, leaving him tapping into their team truism. Putting him out there in similar fashion to how he was being utilized during the season’s opening weeks, propelling them to that scintillating victory in Brooklyn, doesn’t appear to be happening anywhere on the horizon.
“I can’t get him in the game,” Borrego said. “I could, but as I would say it’s a math equation. You can’t play all these guys. But all of them will be ready when their opportunity is called. And that’s my job as the head coach, to keep them actively growing so when I do call on them and most times they do step up.”