Kenny Atkinson must develop LaMelo Ball as Hornets coach

Golden State Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, left, talks with assistant coach Mike Brown during a timeout during the first quarter of Game 4 of basketball's NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics Friday in Boston.  Atkinson, sources say, will be the Charlotte Hornets' new head coach.

Golden State Warriors assistant coach Kenny Atkinson, left, talks with assistant coach Mike Brown during a timeout during the first quarter of Game 4 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics Friday in Boston. Atkinson, sources say, will be the Charlotte Hornets’ new head coach.

AP

Kenny Atkinson, who sources say will be the Charlotte Hornets’ new head coach, has a reputation for developing young players.

Then again, so did James Borrego, who Hornets owner Michael Jordan and general manager Mitch Kupchak fired after Borrego directed Charlotte to four straight non-playoff seasons.

How well Atkinson does as Borrego’s replacement depends on two things more than anything else.

First, the new coach must figure out how to harness LaMelo Ball’s superstar potential.

Second, he has to get the Hornets playing better defense.

Borrego’s Hornets traditionally ranged from mediocre to poor on defense, ranking in the bottom third of almost any defensive category you could name. And not all of that was his fault. Kupchak never provided Borrego with a rim-protecting center, which meant that a lot of games turned into Charlotte being on the wrong side of a 120-118 score.

Atkinson, 55, has been an NBA coach before with the Brooklyn Nets. His record there in three-plus years was 118-190, which doesn’t exactly scream “This guy has to get a second chance!” He’s not a glamorous pick, and he’s not going to sell a lot of season tickets on his own.

But Atkinson did turn some decent young players into better young players with the Nets (Caris LeVert and D’Angelo Russell were among them). That’s promising.

Now a Golden State assistant, Atkinson is in the middle of the NBA Finals and may not be free of those duties until June 19, when a Game 7 between Golden State and Boston would be played, if necessary. The teams are tied at 2-2 after Golden State’s 107-97 road win over Boston Friday behind Steph Curry’s 43 points.

So there’s a lot of work for Atkinson to do in a hurry and not much time to do it, given that the Hornets have picks Nos. 13 and 15 in the NBA draft on June 23.

The best scenario: The Hornets package one or both of those assets, along with somebody else tradeable, and find somebody who can regularly block or alter shots. Then they need to keep Miles Bridges (a restricted free agent), bolster their young core and get Ball more engaged on the defensive end.

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How well new Charlotte Hornets coach Kenny Atkinson manages all-star guard LaMelo Ball will be a major key to how successful Atkinson’s Hornets teams are. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

When Kupchak was recently asked what Ball, still only 20, needed to do to get better in his third NBA season, the GM said: “He’s got to get stronger, which obviously means he’s got to get in the weight room. And then the next step is also becoming a better two-way player. You know, offensively he’s just a joy to watch, and a joy to play with … The things you can control, right now, would be getting stronger and becoming a better two-way player, which means on the defensive side.”

All that will fall on Atkinson and his staff. A coach must have a good relationship with his star players, and win enough respect that he’s going to get their buy-in when it comes to end-of-game situations.

It’s too early to know how Atkinson will actually turn out. Will he be great, or will he just be another in a long series of coaches who don’t guide the Hornets anywhere near the promised land?

His first press conference will tell us something; his first season will tell us more. The Hornets keep looking like they are on the verge of the playoffs, only to fall short every year since 2016. That’s the second-longest active playoff drought in the NBA, according to ESPN, trailing only Sacramento. Missing the playoffs in six straight seasons also has set a dubious franchise record for the Hornets.

Atkinson was a better choice than Charlotte’s other eventual finalist, Mike D’Antoni, whose offensive credibility is off-the-charts but whose defensive issues likely would have had the Hornets spinning their wheels. But was Atkinson the best choice?

That’s iffy. The only way Atkinson can answer that question with a “yes” is by finding two keys and unlocking two doors: LaMelo Ball and Charlotte’s team defense.

Do that, and this team will actually win a playoff series for the first time in 20 years.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 18 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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