Injury to Hornets’ Nick Richards likely means more time for Mark Williams

Charlotte Hornets assistant coach Tyrone Corbin, left, reaches out to congratulate center Mark Williams on his play during first half action against the Washington Wizards on Monday, October 10, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.

Charlotte Hornets assistant coach Tyrone Corbin, left, reaches out to congratulate center Mark Williams on his play during first half action against the Washington Wizards on Monday, October 10, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC.

The news of being victimized again by the pesky injury bug that’s hovered around all season was certainly not welcomed, not with the Charlotte Hornets’ backup center being forced to sit out with a sprained right ankle.

Nick Richards has been a bright spot in the Hornets’ glum start marred by player bumps and bruises, and quickly turned into a solid contributor, giving quality minutes behind starter Mason Plumlee. But the third-year big man who’s become an offensive rebounding force and blossomed into a master of putbacks wasn’t available in the Hornets’ 124-113 loss to Portland at the Moda Center on Monday night.

And that could be the case for a while. Although Richards is being termed day-to-day and appears to have dodged serious injury after landing on the foot of Los Angeles center Thomas Bryant on Friday night, calming some apparent early fears about the severity, he’s probably going to need more than a couple of days to return.

With Richards joining the Hornets’ walking wounded, it paves a path for Mark Williams and thrusts the rookie into action at the tail end of the Hornets’ six-game road trip – and perhaps beyond. Playing his first meaningful action of the season, Williams responded with a career-best nine points, six rebounds and also had a pair of steals in 14 minutes. He gave the Hornets (9-25) a lift off bench in the first half and displayed some of his promise before they fizzled out in the second half against the Trail Blazers.

“He was impressive,” coach Steve Clifford said. “The way he handled himself, his poise on the court, his basket protection, we were very organized when we were on the floor. He did a good job in his pick-and-roll coverage and I thought he did a really, really, good job.”

Williams’ potential was on full display early, beginning when he was on the floor in the first quarter for the first time this season and demonstrated his ability to affect a game within a span of four possessions. The 7-footer converted a nice feed for a two-handed rim-rattling dunk and helped clog up the lane on Portland’s next trip down the floor that led to steal and subsequent fastbreak bucket. Count a layup a few seconds later and Williams had six points in the blink of an eye. Not bad for somone playing in their fourth career game.

The No. 15 overall selection in this past June’s draft also had a nice deflection on Portland center Jusuf Nurkić in his first-half stint, using that condor-like wingspan to knock the ball away and spark a fastbreak that ended with Williams tossing in an alley-oop. But he also had his issues keeping Nurkić bottled up, getting whistled for a couple of fourth-quarter fouls while guarding the crafty 6-11 Bosnian.

“It felt good,” Williams said. “Just knowing what I’m capable of and being able to show that a little bit. I felt like I did some good things on both ends even though I was fouling a lot. But I think I showed a little bit about what I was able to do.”

Over the past three months, Williams has shuffled between Greensboro and Charlotte, which was always a part of the plan. The Hornets wanted Williams to get some seasoning and learn the team’s system. They didn’t intend on inserting him into the main rotation immediately, instead opting to have him suit up frequently with the Swarm so he could get some invaluable playing time rather than simply sitting on the Hornets’ bench inactive in street clothes.

He appeared in a pair of outings for the Swarm in the recent G League showcase in Las Vegas last week, averaging 23.5 points, 13 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game. All those minutes with Greensboro over the last dozen weeks prepared him for his true debut against Portland, leaving him confident he could handle the transition.

“It definitely felt great with me going back and forth,” Williams said. “And now that I was here, I was able to make the most of the opportunity, show like I said what I’m capable of. I just think I tried to do that tonight and I think I did a solid job there.”

The Hornets’ bench even rose in unison on a couple of occasions, applauding him.

“Mark’s really the one guy – just because we haven’t had injuries at the ‘5’ – who’s practiced very well and has shown a lot in practice, but hasn’t had a chance to play,” Clifford said. “So, I told the team this a couple of times, he’s the only one who can say, ‘Hey, I haven’t had my chance yet.’ And yet he’s worked hard, he’s gotten better. So, I am anxious to have him out there and give him a chance, too.”

It took a honing in on several areas for Williams prior to getting the nod. Clifford said Williams is more aware while playing on the perimeter, which includes defending dribble handoffs, flares, players flashing and other things that are more prominent in centers within the NBA than those Williams got used to playing against in college.

Most importantly, he also now excels in areas the Hornets badly need to enhance.

“I think the rim protection would be the beginning,” Clifford said. “I think that’s his calling card to start and I think his pick-and-roll defense has been good. He’s very bright, picks things up quickly, and he’s got great size. So, I just think for our team, the rim protection piece has been … it’s a challenging area for us and we’ve got to get better at it.”

The Hornets are eager to see if a pair of things Williams improved on in practice translates over to games. That’s the real real barometer to gauge how he’s mastering the staff’s teachings. So far, so good with his progression in a couple of key areas he’s been focusing on.

Williams appears to have passed his first major test since leaving Duke.

“It definitely felt great to be on the floor early, be in the rotation,” Williams said. “I just tried to make the most out of my opportunity. I was trying to do whatever the team needed.”

Roderick Boone joined the Observer in September 2021 to cover the Charlotte Hornets and NBA. In his more than two decades of writing about the world of sports, he’s chronicled everything from high school rodeo to a major league baseball no-hitter to the Super Bowl to the Finals. The Long Island native has deep North Carolina roots and enjoys watching “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” endlessly.
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