It was March 2020, the coronavirus had shut down the NBA, and Malik Monk was scared. Just a few days after the league suspended play, Monk found himself struggling to breathe. Immediately he thought he’d contracted COVID-19, and his mind whirled thinking about what would happen to him and how his body would respond. Now, though, over a year later, he can calmly diagnose what actually happened.
“I had a panic attack,” Monk said in a Zoom interview this week. “It was super scary.”
Months later, in December, Monk would end up testing positive for COVID-19, and he experienced mild symptoms. He lost his taste and smell, had chills, and was forced to isolate for 14 days during the ramp-up to an NBA season that he was greatly anticipating. Then, just when he was starting to get healthy, his grandmother died from the virus. Her death hit Monk hard and made him realize just how dangerous his situation had been.
“That shit was terrible, man,” Monk said.
Monk says he didn’t feel 100 percent healthy until the first week of February, and his smell and taste are still coming back. But when he did return to the court on a consistent basis a month into the NBA’s 2020-21 season, he was able to show why he’d been looking forward to playing.
Monk has taken a leap this year, one that’s partly the result of a maturation process he’s been going through since he came into the league in 2017. He’s finally having the kind of shooting season many anticipated when he was selected by Charlotte with the no. 11 pick, hitting a career-high 42.4 percent of his 3s on 5.2 attempts per game. And as teammates like Devonte’ Graham and LaMelo Ball have missed time with injuries, Monk has stepped into a formidable role and improved his résumé before he enters restricted free agency this summer.
It would have been easy for the Hornets to have given up on Monk over the past few years, when he was struggling to find his shot or when he was suspended last season for violating the league’s drug policy. When the team hired Mitch Kupchak as GM and James Borrego as head coach in 2018, it could have viewed Monk as a misfire from a previous regime.
Any of those actions would have mirrored the tendency of front offices around the league to hit the eject button on struggling players sooner rather than later. In Monk’s 2017 class alone, five of the 14 lottery picks have already been traded, and one of them has been traded twice.
“The reality is when you’re drafting one-and-done players, there’s more room for error,” one league scout said last week. “Most front offices draft a guy and believe in him; they’re proud of their choice and they want to see him develop. But [some] GMs also identify their mistakes early, and if it’s not a great fit, they try to move on from the player quicker.”
Just a year ago, Monk seemed like exactly the kind of player the Hornets would dispatch in search of assets or simply to clear a roster spot. But the Hornets didn’t move on from Monk. Instead, they chose to keep him around, and now he’s become an example of how patience and time can sometimes be the best recipe for seeing player development come to fruition.
“He’s become more professional and he’s taken ownership of his life and his career. And that’s not easy for all young guys that come into this league,” Borrego said. “There’s a number of guys every single year who come into the league with certain expectations and hopes and beliefs, and the reality is it’s gonna take work and it takes time to develop and grow.”
Few people know Monk better than his dog Bear does. Whenever Monk is feeling down, the 100-plus-pound Neapolitan mastiff can sense exactly what Monk needs.
“[Bear] can tell when something is wrong with me,” Monk says with a laugh. “He just comes and lays his big old body on me or with me. It’s nice to have that.”
Monk says Bear has been a godsend during the transition from college to the NBA, as has the therapist Monk has been seeing every week since his second season in the league. Monk came into the NBA at just 19 years old, and the realities of having to be a professional at such a young age hit him hard—as did his struggles on the court. In his first season, Monk played 14 inconsistent minutes a game and spent the year confused about his role and playing time. “It was hard my rookie year,” Monk said. “I had a coach that didn’t play rookies.”
Charlotte changed coaches that offseason, going from Steve Clifford to Borrego, but Monk still felt the pressure in Year 2 as his shot remained inconsistent. “I was looking at tweets, looking at Instagram, just reading all the negative stuff,” Monk said. “And I got caught up in that … so I had to protect my mental health because it will drive you crazy.”
Monk entered his third season with a different mindset. He started spending more time in the gym, and by February of last year he was averaging career highs across the board. Monk finally felt like he had figured something out and could sustain it. But that same month, he did some “young stuff,” as he puts it, and got suspended for violating the league’s drug policy. The moment sent him down a spiral and he felt like he may have been on the brink of being out of the NBA. Fortunately for him, Charlotte stuck by him. But that’s not always the case for players in such precarious positions.
The NBA isn’t generally a patient place. Certainly some players aren’t expected to reach their full potential until their second contracts, especially if they’re younger and being selected for their ceiling. But with superstar trades more available than ever and new avenues to find talent emerging all the time, teams seem to be more willing to give up on high draft picks earlier—especially when they know they’re getting a sure thing back.
The Lakers are the prime example of that. In the past five years alone, they’ve traded away or renounced lottery picks D’Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, Lonzo Ball, and Brandon Ingram to clear the runway for LeBron James. Because superstar talent is the most important precursor to success, the pressure on young players to turn potential into production is on from the moment they step foot on an NBA floor. While Denver allowed Michael Porter Jr. to work through struggles and injuries to get to the point where he’s shown he can help them win games, they didn’t do the same with recent draft pick R.J. Hampton.
“Denver was hesitant to trade R.J. Hampton because R.J. Hampton can end up being a really good player in the future,” the scout pointed out. “But they had to because they got a better player back.”
The question of how to properly develop a player is tricky. Every team has their own approach for getting guys up to speed, as well as their own timeline. Oklahoma City, for example, is letting its young, inexperienced roster play through mistakes as part of a rebuild, while the Warriors have struggled with how to incorporate no. 2 pick James Wiseman as they’ve tried to compete. (Wiseman is now out for the rest of the season with a meniscus injury.) Then there’s the fact that no two players grow and learn the exact same way.
“I had a head coach on a different team telling me that for a top-10 pick, the best thing they could have done was put them in the G league,” the scout said, referencing the fact that some young picks don’t get enough in-game experience early in their NBA careers. “But there was too much pressure. He was a top-10 pick in the draft, so it’s also about how the player handles it. … I think the best teams know how to make the G League a vehicle for development.”
There are so many factors at play that no one size fits all. But no matter the situation, one constant is needed: a player’s buy-in. And for Monk, the valley he found himself in during his third season became a catalyst for improvement on and off the court. He moved his social media apps to the last page of his phone, and he took initiative in practice, approaching coaches with questions and requests to put in extra work. No one has recognized that growth more than Borrego.
“Early on, it absolutely was frustrating for him, and he and I have shared those moments together,” Borrego said. “But he’s taken ownership of his offensive game, his defensive game, his work ethic, the time he puts in in the weight room, the value of all of that.”
This improvement has not been one-sided. Borrego believes Monk has helped him practice patience and give young players the space to play without the pressure that they’ll be benched. Both Borrego and Monk said that the role the coach has fashioned for the guard—giving him a guaranteed 20 to 25 minutes a night off the bench as a scorer—has freed Monk up to be more confident, especially in finding his shot.
That shot was Monk’s strength coming out of college, and though it didn’t fall often early in his career, it’s dropping now. And if he can maintain a steady pace through the rest of this season and beyond, it will become his moneymaker.
“To stand out in this league, he needs that trust from a coach, from an organization saying, ‘We believe in you,’” Borrego said. “And I believe that he is a 40 percent shooter. He’s a guy that can get to the rim at an elite level, he’s an elite finisher. He has the ability to make plays for others and he’s got a bright future.”
It’s easy to wonder what would have happened if the Hornets had given up on Monk sometime over the past few seasons, but for now, they’re reaping the rewards of believing in him.
Whether Charlotte will be part of Monk’s future, though, remains to be seen. While Monk’s development is a testament to the Hornets’ growth as a franchise and Borrego’s coaching, he’s not the team’s centerpiece (that’s LaMelo). This means he may soon force the Hornets to make a decision between betting further on his development and waving goodbye to a former lottery pick they don’t see as part of their long-term future.
On the one hand, Monk is an example of how giving a player room to find the right role for himself is a sound approach. On the other hand, for every Monk, there’s a Victor Oladipo, who developed into a two-time All-Star after he left the team that drafted him, or an Andrew Wiggins, who simply needed to find a consistent coach and role after languishing in Minnesota.
Things change quickly in the NBA, which has been to Monk’s benefit. His stock is rising heading into this offseason, while another extension-less player from his draft class, Lauri Markkanen, has struggled since a very promising first season. Two years ago, no one would have taken Monk over Markkanen. Now? Markkanen’s struggles and Monk’s improved shooting could end up being reflected in their second contracts.
As the scout pointed out, oftentimes, struggling lottery players need some form of adversity to jolt them into shifting their approach and mindset. Sometimes, a change of scenery by way of a trade helps provide that. For Monk, though, all he needed was trust and time. And even if the time on his first contract is running out, his career is still just getting started.
“I be forgetting I’m 23,” Monk said. “It feels like I’ve been here for 10 years.”