Before the 2017 NBA draft, the buzz – if you’ll excuse the pun – was that the Charlotte Hornets would end up taking Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell with the 11th pick. It was an intriguing if unexciting choice that would have given the Hornets another great defender to bother the opposition and a mediocre shooter to keep the spacing cramped. In a way, Mitchell represented the same old Hornets that haven’t made it to the second round in years. When Malik Monk fell out of the top-10 and into Charlotte’s lap, it was an exciting change of pace – a lacking defender but electrifying offensive force, one that could eventually become a go-to scorer whose defensive flaws were hidden by Steve Clifford’s scheme and his more capable teammates.
Of course, things aren’t always as they seem.
Just over a quarter way through the season, Monk hasn’t done much of anything to help his team. In fact, he’s recently seen his playing time reduced drastically as Charlotte has found itself in a tailspin that included a pair of losing streaks of six and four games, respectively.
Mitchell, on the other hand, has been excelling in Utah. While Monk has found himself on a shorter and shorter leash, the Jazz rookie became a key piece helping keep his team afloat in Rudy Gobert’s absence. Take a look at the difference in production on the year:
There have been quite a few articles dedicated to Monk in this space. It wasn’t too long ago that I said he wasn’t ready yet. That holds true, and it’s true that there’s still plenty of time for him to become the player fans are hoping. There’s plenty of things about the former Kentucky Wildcat that are simultaneously true, and that’s what makes his benching so divisive – yes, he’s been bad on both side of the floor this year, but the best way to improve is with on-court experience. Heavy minutes for an ineffective player isn’t a recipe for success for a team looking to make a postseason run, but even a playoffs appearance is seeming increasingly unlikely.
Suffice it to say that the Malik Monk situation is complicated. But there’s one thing that isn’t so complicated: it was absolutely the right call to pick him over Donovan Mitchell.
Hindsight is 20/20, and even so, it’s still too early to definitively declare that one player is better than another. At the time of the draft in June, it was clear that Monk was a better prospect overall and a better fit for the Hornets. The team was in desperate need of a perimeter scorer that could take pressure off of Kemba Walker and open the floor for players like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Dwight Howard. Charlotte had the pieces in place to put together a top-10 defense. Time and time again, it was the Hornets’ offense that let them down. Monk, the prolific college scorer that once dropped 47 points on eventual national champions North Carolina, fit the bill. He was so impressive in Lexington that most were expecting him to be off the board well before Charlotte would have a chance to snag him.
Maybe his unexpected draft slide had something to do with a previously-overlooked fatal flaw that will doom him to flame out of the NBA and become the next former player to put up eye-popping numbers in China. It’s possible that every other team noticed something that made them want to stay far away, while Cho was so blinded by the horrible camouflage trim in Monk’s draft night jacket that he picked him anyway.
Or it could just be that a 200-pound 19-year-old isn’t ready to succeed immediately against some of the best athletes in the world. You’re always going to take some lumps with a freshman, especially one as thin as Monk. On a team gunning for another high draft pick, he’d play through those lumps. But Charlotte views itself as a playoff team, and they simply can’t afford to take all of those lumps at once while they’re still in the postseason hunt. Perhaps admitting that this season is already off the rails and giving Monk as much time as possible in order to build for the future would be a wiser move in the long run. But that’s not likely to happen, and Monk is stuck in an unfortunate situation.
Just because Mitchell has developed unusually fast for a rookie and seems like the better player right now doesn’t mean he will be long-term. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Charlotte made a mistake by passing him over.