NBA

What happened to Malik Monk?

The consensus was that the Hornets walked away from the 2017 NBA Draft as clear winners. For a team that has struggled to add high-level talent through the draft, they got a top-10 talent with the 11th overall pick in Malik Monk.

Monk wasn’t considered a flawless player heading into the process — the biggest criticism at the time was that he’s an undersized shooting guard who lacks the polish to play point guard — but it was believed the Arkansas native had an NBA-ready jump shot and the raw talent needed to develop into a dynamic guard. It gave him the tools to make an immediate impact on a team looking to make the playoffs this season and the potential to raise their ceiling considerably down the road.

You wouldn’t know that based on how Monk has played this season, though. Heading into Charlotte’s game against the Pelicans on Tuesday, he has averaged 4.8 points, 1.2 assists, 0.8 rebounds and 0.3 steals on 32.9 percent shooting from the field and 30.8 percent shooting from the perimeter. The only rookie to have scored at least 100 total points on the season less efficiently is Semi Ojeleye, who was selected in the second round of the same draft. Take it a step further, and only a handful of players in the entire league currently have a worse true shooting percentage than Monk.

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Those are some concerning shooting numbers for someone who had the reputation of being one of the best shooters in his class. Monk has made a decent amount of his catch-and-shoot 3-point attempts with the Hornets, but they’ve only made up a quarter of his shot attempts. He’s been far more likely to pull-up off the dribble, where he’s made 30.2 percent of his attempts from 2-point range and 26.0 percent of his attempts from 3-point range. The combination gives him an effective field goal percentage of 34.5 percent on pull-ups, putting him on the same page as the likes of James Johnson, Dennis Smith Jr. and Ben Simmons.

While the volume is probably higher than it should be — his reliance on mid-range pull-ups in particular keeps him from making more plays at the basket — those are important shots for Monk’s development. After playing shooting guard at Kentucky, Monk has logged nearly half of his minutes at point guard this season. It’s the reason he’s gone from creating 10.5 percent of his offense in isolation and the pick-and-roll in college to 39.1 percent in the NBA. (John Calipari used him more as a traditional shooting guard at Kentucky, having him spot-up 29.9 percent of the time and run off of screens 15.8 percent of the time. Those plays have combined to represent 36.3 percent of his offense with the Hornets this season).

If Monk is to become a combo guard as opposed to a traditional shooting guard in the NBA — probably the right move considering he’s only 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-4 wingspan — developing into a three-level scorer will help him reach his full potential as a pick-and-roll and isolation scorer.

Since most rookie point guards struggle to make an immediate impact in those areas, it’s no surprise that someone who is transitioning from shooting guard to point guard would struggle even more. The difference with Monk is he hasn’t had an opportunity to play through his mistakes. Whereas Dennis Smith Jr. and De’Aaron Fox have started for most, if not all, of the season, Monk has seen his playing time dwindle from 21.8 minutes per game in October to 5.5 minutes per game in February. It’s only now that Michael Carter-Williams has been ruled out for the remainder of the season that Monk is getting an opportunity to play again.

With the Hornets all but out of the Eastern Conference playoff race, Steve Clifford’s intention over the next month is to make Monk’s life as simple as possible when he is on the floor by running less sets and encouraging him to look for his own shot when he has the ball. The results haven’t been great in his last three games — Monk has averaged 8.7 points on 37.9 percent shooting from the field — and yet he has shown some flashes of what he could be.

Monk’s first basket against the 76ers on March 6, for example, came on this slick drive:

Later in the same game, Monk had this explosive putback following a missed shot by Treveon Graham:

Two nights later, Monk scored 13 points and dished out five assists in one of his best all-around efforts of the season:

Monk then made a couple of pull-up jump shots against the Suns on March 10, including this one against Tyson Chandler in isolation:

The talent is clearly there for Monk to be a special offensive player. As bad as the on-court results have been this season, he’s still an explosive guard who has an incredibly smooth shooting stroke and the skills to make basic plays for himself and others off the dribble. He’s not shooting the ball well enough to be a full-time shooting guard and he’s not making plays consistently enough with the ball in his hands to be a full-time point guard — something Clifford alluded to in January when he told The Charlotte Observer’s Rick Bonnell that Monk is a shot-maker whose simply not making shots — but some of that is to be expected from a 20-year-old rookie, especially one who spent his offseason recovering from an ankle injury.

What’s important for the final 14 games of this season is Monk gets an opportunity to play through his mistakes in ways he wasn’t able to earlier in the season. Because if he can end the season on a positive note by building on what he’s shown over the last four games, it will set him up nicely for his sophomore season. And seeing as Carter-Williams’ contract with the Hornets expires at the end of this season, the backup point guard is Monk’s for the taking again.