CHARLOTTE — It’s only December but Devonte’ Graham is making a strong case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.
Graham added to his growing resume on Wednesday night, knocking down 10 of 16 3-pointers and finishing with 33 points as the Charlotte Hornets spoiled D’Angelo Russell’s return to the court with a 106-91 victory over the Golden State Warriors. He also had nine assists and seven rebounds with only two turnovers.
Granted, Graham’s effort came against the struggling Warriors (4-19), but Hornets coach James Borrego said the second-year guard deserves to be at the top of the MIP conversation.
“He’s not just doing it every other game or every third game or fourth game, he’s doing this consistently night after night,” Borrego said. “It’s not like he wasn’t on that scouting report tonight. I guarantee you (Warriors coach) Steve (Kerr) had him at the top of the report, just like he will be on Friday night.”
Graham is averaging 20.8 points and 7.7 assists this season, helping to fill the scoring load that was created when his former mentor and three-time All-Star Kemba Walker signed with the Boston Celtics.
Graham said his growth is about opportunity and confidence.
“The coaches have a lot of confidence in me and we sit and watch film and we talk, and they just say all good things about me and tell me they want me to have the ball in my hands and making plays,” Graham said. “It gives me that confidence to go out and play that way.”
Said Borrego: “He knows he’s got the green light. We want him shooting the ball. Obviously, it’s opening up a lot for us as he shoots it. I love his mentality right now.”
Russell finished with 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting in 25 minutes after missing the last nine games with a right thumb sprain.
Russell did most of his damage in the first half, scoring 15 points.
He started to heat up in the second quarter, scoring eight points on three straight possessions.
He beat Graham with a quick drive from the wing and drew a foul for a three-point play, knocked down a 3 from the top of the key and then scored on another drive down the middle of the lane to help the Warriors claw back to within four at halftime.
“Well, he looked good tonight,” Kerr said. “Looked better in the first half than the second. I think he got a little tired maybe in the second half but he had it going and he is a naturally gifted scorer and playmaker. I think that he will be fine and it won’t take him too long.”
Russell said he felt fine physically on the floor.
“I felt solid from the jump,” Russell said.
The Warriors have lost four straight on their current road trip.
Warriors: Eric Paschall entered the game as the first Warriors rookie to score in double figures 11 straight games since Klay Thompson. He finished with 16 points. … Draymond Green played one night after having his jersey retired at Michigan State.
Hornets: Swept the two-game season series. … Graham has made at least three 3-pointers in 15 games this season. … Dwayne Bacon made his first 3-pointer since Nov. 18.
Borrego said he likes that Terry Rozier openly welcomed the addition of Graham to the starting lineup, essentially giving the Hornets two starting point guards on the floor at the same time. The two are still getting used to playing with each other, but things seem to be starting to jell.
Rozier added 25 points, seven assists and seven rebounds as the Hornets built a 19-point, second-half lead and hung on.
“It’s a very mature and professional approach by Terry,” Borrego said. “He wants to win and he believes Devonte’ gives us the best chance to do that and it takes pressure off of him and Devonte’ when you have two dynamic backcourt mates like this. It says a lot about Terry’s character and the competitor in him. Obviously he cares but he wants to win and he believes Devonte’ allows him to do that.”
No Munk Dunk
Malik Monk’s teammates got quite a kick out of the guard skying for a dunk and the ball hitting the back of the rim and bouncing nearly all of the way out to half court. Luckily for the Hornets the mistake wasn’t costly as they were up by 15 points at the time and well in control of the game.
Warriors: Wrap up a five-game road trip Friday night against the Bulls.
Hornets: Back home Friday night to host the Nets.