The word Charlotte Hornets coach James Borrego used to describe Devonte Graham — “unfazed” — is certainly accurate. And Graham had company.
Unfazed is how Bismack Biyombo and rookie Cody Martin played, too. Without those three off the bench, the Hornets don’t win. They don’t recover from a 19-point deficit. Quite possibly, they would have been blown out at home by the Indiana Pacers.
Instead, they are 4-3 following a 122-120 overtime victory. Graham finished this by making two of three free throws with 1.7 seconds left. He was magnificent, scoring a career-high 35 points: the most points by a non-starter in Hornets’ history and the most points by a reserve in the NBA this season.
Graham is on this crazy second-season trajectory where, if he maintains, he belongs in the discussion for both Most Improved Player and the Sixth Man award. The former Kansas guard is becoming a coup as a 2018 second-round pick.
And then there is Martin. The one-time N.C. State player, the first of Charlotte’s two second-rounders in 2019, had as good a game as one can without scoring. He grabbed a team-high 11 rebounds in 33 minutes and relentlessly guarded Pacers point guard Malcolm Brogdon.
Veteran center Biyombo didn’t play in the first half, then he went off for 15 points and six rebounds after halftime.
This is a season of discovery for the Hornets following the departure of All-Star Kemba Walker, and the finds so far have been impressive, even on a night when first-round rookie P.J. Washington was limited by a left leg contusion.
“He’s grown right before our eyes,” Borrego said of Graham, who has scored 23 or more points in three of the Hornets’ seven games. “I trust him, I believe in him, and I think that’s apparent.”
Trust the kids
Borrego made a promise before the season to pivot toward youth in playing time. Some choices became easy when Washington had a spectacular preseason. But using Martin, the 36th overall pick out of Nevada, was a leap of faith that started Saturday in San Francisco.
Borrego inserted Martin as a defensive stopper against the Golden State Warriors, and he made three hustle plays in the last four minutes to help seal a 92-87 victory. Martin is a long way from being a finished product offensively; he’s different from his twin brother Caleb, also on Charlotte’s roster.
But Cody has a toughness and fierceness Borrego needs.
“I think he knows that from the start I will play hard and bring a spark,” Martin said. “It feels so good to know he has this kind of faith in me late in a game.
“I’ve always had the mindset that if you play hard, good things happen regardless. There are nights when your team won’t make shots. But effort is something you can always control.”
it might have been in different ways, but Graham and Biyombo shared that level of effort. Graham got to the foul line 12 times in the second half. Biyombo made six of seven shot from the field.
“Biz kept saying, ‘We’ve got six minute left, leave it all on the court!’” Graham said. “Then, it was, ‘We’ve got three minutes left, leave it all on the court!’”
Not always extraneous
It’s an awkward situation for Biyombo, in his ninth NBA season and his second stint in Charlotte. His presence here is the end result of the Hornets discarding Dwight Howard before last season; Biyombo makes $17 million to play behind starting center Cody Zeller. Some games that means no playing time at all.
Borrego didn’t see the energy he needed in the first half, and subbing Biyombo for Zeller was one of the ways he shook it up. That Biyombo offered physicality was no surprise. That he provided points was a big surprise.
“I was stretching on that sideline,” Biyombo said. “I always say, ‘You’ve got to stay ready, so you don’t have to get ready.”
Borrego said in the preseason the young guys would get the benefit of the doubt, but that didn’t mean he would just freeze out the veterans. That’s a tough course to navigate.
Finding roles for Martin and Biyombo to such good effect shows Borrego has a fix on that course.