Charlotte Hornets: Jalen McDaniels, next man up

Injuries continue to mount up for the Charlotte Hornets, who are in the thick of contending for a playoff berth for the first time since the 2015-16 season.

LaMelo Ball is likely out for the remainder of the season with a broken wrist sustained on March 20. Malik Monk suffered a right ankle injury in last Thursday’s game against the Brooklyn Nets; he’s expected to miss at least two weeks. The latest blow came the night on Friday against the Indiana Pacers; Gordon Hayward sprained his right foot during the second quarter and did not return. After further evaluation confirmed the injury, Hayward is expected to be out at least four weeks.

The Hornets enter Sunday night’s contest on the road against the Boston Celtics with a record of 25-23, sitting at fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Only 1.5 games separate the fourth-place Hornets and the eighth-place Celtics. With 24 games left in the season, Charlotte’s playoff hopes are in jeopardy.

Only the top six teams in each conference are guaranteed a playoff spot. The seventh and eighth place teams must face the ninth and tenth place teams in a play-in tournament to determine the seventh and eighth seeds.

The Hornets also enter the game without players that account for 44% of their scoring. Cody Martin and the recently acquired Brad Wanamaker will see more playing time. Caleb Martin could work his way back into the rotation as well, but with Miles Bridges expected to start at small forward in place of Hayward, this may be an opportunity for Jalen McDaniels to step in and back up PJ Washington at the power forward position to avoid overly-exerting Bridges.

McDaniels has played sparingly this season. He has appeared in 23 games with one start, averaging 4.0 points and 2.0 rebounds, shooting 44.3% from the field in 10.5 minutes per game. McDaniels appeared in two games for the Greensboro Swarm, the Hornets’ developmental affiliate, in the G League bubble this season, averaging 20.0 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 1.5 steals, and 2.0 blocks in 38.0 minutes per game.

McDaniels still needs work defensively, his longevity in the league is going to depend on him adding bulk to his frame aiding his ability to defend, box out, and rebound.

What he can provide in Hayward’s absence and Bridges’ move to the three-position is the ability to score from different positions on the floor. Although McDaniels’ three-point shot still needs work, he has the ability to knock down shots from the mid-range and finish at the rim. In his one-plus seasons with the Hornets, McDaniels hasn’t gotten to show his ability to connect on hook shots and floaters at a high rate like he was able to do at San Diego State against opposing players his size and smaller.

There has always been a “next man up” philosophy in the world of sports; when one player goes down, another on the team steps up to fill that spot seamlessly. McDaniels will likely get more playing time because of the injury to Hayward, but he won’t be stepping in to replace him. If McDaniels can step in and fill the role and production of Bridges at the power forward position while Hayward is out, that will go a long way in aiding the Hornets’ goal of playing in the postseason this season.