Charlotte Hornets

Malik Monk finally has something working

In his first two seasons, it looked like Malik Monk was playing himself out of the Hornets’ future. Now, he’s finally found a formula that works.

Malik Monk’s first two NBA seasons did not go according to plan. The prolific scorer from Kentucky was billed as a potentially scheme-busting shooter in the NBA — running off screens, on catch-and-shoot opportunities and pulling up off the dribble. So far, that shooting skill hasn’t materialized and his middling rookie 3-point percent of 34.2 fell to 33.0 percent last season and a disastrous 27.3 percent so far this year.

But despite the eye-popping slide in what was supposed to be his primary skill, Monk is playing more minutes than ever and has improved significantly in another offensive area, carving out a stable role for himself.

Through the first 30 games of this season, Monk has made 67.1 percent of shots inside the restricted area and 63.5 percent inside of eight feet. He’s compensating for his slight and short build with acrobatic finishes and using his soft touch to drop in floaters and flips when he can’t get himself all the way to the basket. The result is that he’s scoring 0.659 points per drive, 16th among the 113 players who average at least five drives per game, and about the same as Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James or Paul George.

Monk has played about two-thirds of his minutes with Devonte’ Graham this season and his true shooting percentage is significantly higher when the two share the floor, reflecting a budding chemistry that Monk was never really able to build with Kemba Walker.

One of the biggest differences has simply been getting Monk the ball in places where he can move quickly and attack decisively. When he was given opportunities to create last year, it was often a more static clear-out isolation. Now, we’re seeing more plays like this one, where Graham’s gravity draws extra defensive attention at the top of the arc and Monk receives the ball on the move against a defender already off-balance.

The backscreen from Marvin Williams helps spring Monk there but he also goes right into a straight-line drive to the baseline. Last year, this likely would have seen Monk try a step-back jumper towards the 3-point line or an off-balance fallaway on the baseline, instead of carrying his momentum all the way through and finishing at the rim. In clip after clip, you can see him doing a much better job of leaping off two feet, getting himself set and balanced before he jumps, whether it’s a pull-up 2-pointer, a floater or a layup.

Graham, to his credit, has also done a very nice job of being attentive to the way his personal shooting gravity warps a defense, getting Monk the ball when his defender is off balance and then backing well out of the action on his drives to keep his defender out of the play.

Defenses are responding more to Monk’s drives now which has opened up additional passing lanes and playmaking opportunities — one of the reasons he’s averaging a new career-high 7.9 potential assists per 36 minutes, about the same as CJ McCollum or Pascal Siakam. He’s also drawing more fouls on his drives to the basket, which is helping juice his overall efficiency.

The image below, courtesy of Positive Residual, shows Monk’s true shooting percentage shot charts (which includes shooting fouls drawn by location and the resulting free throws) for his first two seasons compared to this year.

We’re approaching the point in the season where trends become more reliable and trustworthy. Monk’s finishing numbers may be slightly inflated by luck but there are some clear indicators of lasting change, on tape and in the box score. In roughly half as many minutes as he played last season, Monk has already scored nearly as many points in the paint this year (144) as he did last year (182) and there’s a reasonable chance he could finish this season with more points in the paint than he did in his first two seasons combined (272).

He still shoots the ball confidently from beyond the arc and getting anywhere close to his predraft ceiling will mean that number progresses back toward what he shot as a rookie and, hopefully, even higher. Still, Monk began this season looking like an undersized scoring guard who might not actually have the scoring chops to be an NBA player. Thirty games later he’s part of one of the most pleasantly surprising backcourts in the league and has reclaimed at last some of the promise that made him such an interesting prospect.

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