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The Hornets Have Found Their Own Personal Draymond

After years of being pigeonholed as a wing, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has been given new life this season as a full-time big man. Early returns are positive and an example of just how much role matters in shaping a player’s career.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Hornets might have found an answer to their Michael Kidd-Gilchrist problem. The no. 2 overall pick in the 2012 draft has never lived up to expectations in seven seasons in Charlotte, almost entirely due to his biggest weakness. It doesn’t matter how well a perimeter player defends if he can’t shoot. New Hornets head coach James Borrego has moved MKG to the bench, but the bigger change is where he’s playing him. He’s giving Kidd-Gilchrist, who has been a wing for most of his life, minutes at the 5. Tony Allen has been the model for Kidd-Gilchrist throughout his NBA career. This season, Borrego is asking, What if it were Draymond Green?

For as great as he was on defense, Allen’s inability to shoot 3s would have made him unplayable in this era, even in his prime. MKG has only shot 9-of-40 from 3 (22.5 percent) in 362 career games, with two of those makes coming in their 112-110 loss to the Bulls on Wednesday. For all the time he has spent ironing out the kinks in his shot, defenses still don’t respect it. At this stage in his career, he should be honing his strengths rather than working on his weaknesses. The only position a player without a jumper can play these days is center.

Kidd-Gilchrist is an excellent screener, cutter, rebounder, and interior defender, and he has the tools to be a small-ball 5. He’s about the same size (6-foot-7 and 232 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan) as Draymond (6-foot-7 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-1 wingspan). Both are built like NFL linebackers, with a thick chest, strong hands, and quick feet. MKG has the same combination of athleticism, tenacity, and basketball IQ that allows Green to bang with bigger players inside and rotate quickly as a help-side defender.

Borrego, still experimenting with his new team after five games, has found something with Kidd-Gilchrist at the 5. The Hornets have a net rating of plus-20.9 in the 36 minutes where he has played without any of their traditional big men (Cody Zeller, Willy Hernangomez, and Bismack Biyombo). It’s much higher than his net rating (minus-13.4 in 59 minutes) when he plays next to Hernangomez on the second unit. While lineup numbers don’t mean much by themselves at this point in the season, MKG’s role makes more sense in the former lineup.

Most of his individual stats are up from last season, when he was playing primarily as a small forward in a starting lineup next to Dwight Howard. So far this season, he has almost cut in half the frequency of midrange shots, from 35.2 percent of his total field goal attempts to only 20 percent. And his field goal percentage on shots within 5 feet of the rim has jumped from 64.2 percent to 73.3 percent. Charlotte is allowing him to play in more space this season. They often invert their second unit offense, with Hernangomez at the 3-point line and MKG rolling to the basket.

The defense has to account for Kidd-Gilchrist when he’s involved in the pick-and-roll. While he’s not an elite rim-runner, he’s a crafty ball-handler who can slither through cracks and finish inside. The MKG and Kemba Walker two-man game is a poor man’s version of Draymond and Steph Curry, where the screener makes plays in 4-on-3 situations. Kidd-Gilchrist can’t pass or shoot like Draymond, but he can find the open man on the move. His assist percentage has jumped from 5.9 percent last season to a career-high 15.1 percent this season.

Kidd-Gilchrist is also setting career highs in offensive rebounding (9.3) and block percentage (8.6). He can be a dominant player on the glass for a player his size. The other four players in the NBA with those numbers are all traditional big men. While his numbers will likely regress over the course of the season, a guy spending more time in the paint should have career highs in those categories. Moving inside lets Kidd-Gilchrist become the best version of himself instead of staying on the perimeter and trying to be something that he isn’t.

The shift also lets Borrego play his best five players at the same time. His big men don’t bring much to the table. Zeller, Hernangomez, and Biyombo can’t dictate matchups and force teams to stay big against them. None defends the paint as well as MKG. Even if the Hornets keep Zeller at the 5 at the start of each half, they have plenty of opportunities to go small over the course of the game. Hernangomez (minus-10.1 in 74 minutes) has by far the worst net rating of any Charlotte rotation player. Taking him out of the lineup would create more playing time for more talented perimeter players on their second unit.

The key for Charlotte this season is the progression of three young wings: Jeremy Lamb, Malik Monk, and Miles Bridges. Lamb, who won the starting shooting guard job in training camp, is coming off the best season of his six-year NBA career (12.9 points on 45.7 percent shooting and 2.3 assists per game). He has the best combination of size, shooting, and playmaking ability of the three. Charlotte needs him to be more consistent offensively, which should be easier in smaller lineups that give him more room to attack off the dribble.

Bridges, the no. 12 overall pick in this year’s draft, has hit the ground running. He was a walking highlight reel in the preseason, and he has one of the best net ratings (plus-5.1 in 60 minutes) on the team. Despite being only 20 years old, Bridges should be able to contribute right away. He’s a smart player with freakish athleticism and an NBA-ready body (6-foot-7 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-10 wingspan). Borrego will have a hard time keeping him off the floor if he can be a consistent shooter from behind the deeper NBA 3-point line.

Monk, the no. 11 overall pick in last year’s draft, is a key part of the rotation after spending most of his rookie season on the bench. He might already be their most explosive scorer other than Kemba. While he has been inefficient from 2-point range (38.5 percent on 5.2 attempts per game), he has been firing up 3s as fast as he possibly can (9.1 attempts per-36 minutes of playing time) and knocking them down at a slightly above average rate (36.4 percent). His quick trigger and deep range should open things up for his teammates.

The biggest challenge for the Hornets, who have a 2-3 record in their first five games, is finding sources of offense besides Kemba. Their All-Star point guard is averaging 31.0 points on 47.3 percent shooting and 5.4 assists per game. Nicolas Batum hasn’t been the same player since leaving Portland, and Marvin Williams is best as a spot-up shooter. Both are still useful players, with the size and experience to be switchable defensively and the shooting ability to space the floor. There just isn’t enough scoring punch when the two share the floor with Kemba, Kidd-Gilchrist, and a more limited big man.

The best way for Borrego to help his young players is by spreading the floor and allowing them to lean on Kemba on offense and MKG on defense. He could pick between Monk, Lamb, Bridges, Batum, and Williams in the other three spots in the lineup, closing games with his own version of the Lineup of Death. Charlotte would have a defined identity on both ends of the floor for the first time in years.

They have to figure something out before Kemba becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. While he doesn’t have the size to be the best player on a championship contender, he’s an elite player in his prime who has been one of the franchise’s few bright spots since it returned to Charlotte in 2004. The Hornets have been one of the worst-run franchises in the league in that time, whether the owner has been Bob Johnson or Michael Jordan. They could end up as an East Coast version of the Sacramento Kings if Kemba leaves.

Small-market franchises need to draft well, and their draft history just hasn’t been good enough. Charlotte should never draft another Big Ten power forward again. They spent top-10 picks on Frank Kaminsky (Wisconsin), who is currently out of their rotation, and Noah Vonleh (Indiana), who is on his fourth NBA team in five seasons, as well as a top-five pick on Zeller (Indiana). Kidd-Gilchrist is their highest drafted player since 2006 no. 3 overall pick Adam Morrison, one of the biggest busts in NBA history. He was actually taken 33 spots ahead of Draymond in 2012.

A superstar like MKG’s former college teammate Anthony Davis, who was taken one spot ahead of him, would have been successful anywhere. Guys like Kidd-Gilchrist and Draymond need to be in the right situation in the NBA. Green averaged 4.6 points a game on 37.8 percent shooting in his first two seasons in Golden State, where he played primarily as a 3. He didn’t break out until his third season, when an injury to David Lee allowed him to move to the 4. Draymond might never have gotten the opportunity to play at the 5 in Charlotte.

Even though he was a second-round pick, Green was more ready to contribute at the next level after four seasons at Michigan State. MKG was a one-and-done at Kentucky. He came into the league at 18, so he’s much younger than most players with his level of experience. He just turned 25 in September. Kidd-Gilchrist, who has a $13 million player option next season, is still young enough to get a second chance. The question is whether it happens in Charlotte.