By Ben Leibowitz, Special to NBA.com
Former No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist seemed poised for a breakout campaign ahead of his fourth professional season. The fourth-year leap is not uncommon, as Jimmy Butler of the Chicago Bulls put on display last year by amalgamating everything together — making his first All-Star team and winning Most Improved Player.
Unfortunately for Hornets fans, Kidd-Gilchrist’s shot at emulating a similar jolt in production was put on hold when he tore the labrum in his right shoulder during the preseason opener. The injury required surgery, and he missed the first three months of the 2015-16 season as a result.
The 22-year-old was expected to be sidelined for six months, but he made his return well ahead of that timeline on Jan. 29 against the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s important to note that we’re dealing with a small sample size here (three games), but the Hornets have been a vastly improved defensive squad with MKG back in the lineup.
Again, the sample size is tiny — and the numbers benefit from a road dismantling of the lowly Los Angeles Lakers on Jan. 31 — but a win over the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday hints that the improvement with MKG is no fluke. His tenacity and raw skill on the defensive end sets the tone for coach Steve Clifford’s schemes.
Per Bill Kiser for the Charlotte Observer, Clifford was pleased to have the youngster back and playing at a high level.
“I knew how hard he had worked on his conditioning,” Clifford said leading up to the game against Cleveland. “To be honest, I was surprised at how long he was able to play. I just thought it would take him a while to play so well, but he’s worked so hard and it’s obviously showing.”
Through his first three games played in 2016, the former Kentucky Wildcat is averaging a double-double with 14.3 points and 10.7 rebounds. Both of those marks would be career highs if sustained throughout the remainder of the season.
Not surprisingly, Kidd-Gilchrist’s player efficiency rating (PER) is also at a personal best.
The Hornets have been stung by the injury bug throughout the season. Obviously MKG has been out, but Al Jefferson has been sidelined 30 games and counting, Nic Batum missed time due to a toe injury and Kemba Walker was absent for the matchup against LeBron James and Co. nursing a sore left knee.
Despite all of those setbacks, Charlotte remains in the hunt for a playoff spot. The addition of Kidd-Gilchrist adds a big spark, but the Hornets still need to get healthy after the All-Star break. If they do, the Buzz could cobble together a stellar second half a la the Utah Jazz a season ago, who went 19-10 with the league’s best defensive rating. Stay tuned.
Ben Leibowitz is a writer for PointAfter, a sports data aggregation and visualization website that’s part of the Graphiq network. Visit PointAfter to get all the information about NBA Players, NBA Historical Teams and dozens of other topics.