For NBA rookies, the start of the 2020-21 season was vastly different than in the past.
The COVID-19 pandemic had caused the 2019-20 season to be put on temporary hiatus, and the league eventually resumed play in the bubble in Orlando, FL. The bubble played out long into October and as a result, the 2020 NBA draft was pushed into November with summer league being canceled altogether.
The Las Vegas summer league is usually the first step for NBA rookies to get their feet wet and show that they might be capable of contributing at the next level. It’s their first taste of what it means to be in the NBA.
But with the draft being held in November and the 2020-21 season starting right up in December, the class of 2020 didn’t get that opportunity. The league had an abbreviated training camp and preseason, so they didn’t even really get the chance to be eased into the NBA game. They were essentially thrown to fire from the get-go.
One of those players was Charlotte Hornets center Nick Richards. After a stellar three seasons at Kentucky in which he was named to the All-SEC First Team after his junior year, Richards declared for the 2020 NBA draft. He was taken in the second round at No. 42 by the New Orleans Pelicans and immediately traded to the Hornets.
Richards suited up for the Hornets summer league team this year as one of the ‘veteran’ guys alongside the team’s new rookies and roster hopefuls. While he admits that he was looking forward to summer league as a rookie, he enjoyed being able to experience it this summer.
“It’s something that I think a lot of us last year were hoping to experience. Guys are coming in this year and we’re just having fun with it,” Richards told Basketball Insiders. “We’re just trying to learn about ourselves, learn the system, the whole entire organization. We’re trying to learn how to play basketball.”
Adjusting to the NBA game and having to learn their team’s system can be one of the most challenging things for an NBA rookie. Many players are used to being the go-to guy in college and some as far back as high school. Many of them are used to playing the majority of the game and getting regular and consistent playing time.
It can also take time to get used to the nightly grind of an 82 game season. Many players are used to only 30 games or so in a college season. Many of them need time to adjust to the wear and tear and the physicality of the NBA game
It can take a while, and some humbling of the ego, for young players to figure out the NBA hierarchy. Not having summer league and not having a full training camp and preseason can make that task all the more difficult. Taking all of that in was something that Richards had to do as he learned to adjust on the fly.
“I had to learn how to slow the game down, it’s pretty fast-paced from college to the NBA,” Richards said. “The NBA business is a lot more technical, a lot more detailed. There’s a lot more things you have to really be focused on and locked in on in order to play.”
And for Richards, playing time was something that was hard to come by. To start the season, he was behind veterans Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo in the frontcourt. Throughout the season, he suited up only 18 times in 3.5 minutes per game. His season averages came out to 0.8 points per game and 0.6 rebounds.
But Richards would eventually get his chance, not with the Hornets right away, but with their G League affiliate the Greensboro Swarm. The G League had also been affected by the pandemic and when they halted operations back in March 2020, they did not pick up as the NBA did.
Heading into this season, there were questions as to if and how the G League would operate, and they eventually settled on holding a bubble of their own also in Orlando. For many rookies and young players, this meant the opportunity to get live reps in actual games.
Hornets assistant coach Dutch Gaitley, who coached Charlotte’s summer league team in Las Vegas, recalled playing one-on-one in practice with Richards and how that repetition, while good, is no real substitute for live game reps. He believes that having a true summer league as well will also help with Richards’ development.
“It’s huge, it’s great for Nick. He obviously had the bubble but other than that, he played against Vern [Carey] every single day, he played against myself and other video guys. It gets boring to play against these coaches every single day,” Gaitley said. “The main thing that Nick will be able to carry over to get minutes with us is his energy defensively, protecting the rim and running in transition. Once we get more comfortable throwing it into the bigs, his value will skyrocket.
Richards was one of the players that the Hornets sent to the G League bubble with the Swarm, and he ended up being one of the most impactful players. In nine games played, he put up 17.0 points per game on 52 percent shooting from the field along with 10.3 rebounds and 3.0 blocks. He also shot 50 percent from three-point range. He showed exactly the type of potential that the Hornets saw in him on draft night.
He felt like it was a good experience for him to go out there and show what he’s capable of when getting regular minutes.
“Just to get some games under my belt, it was pretty fun down there,” Richards said. “Playing again, getting some quality minutes and being able to run down the floor and finally show what I was working on in the offseason.”
In the bubble, the NBA experimented with a play-in tournament at the conclusion of the regular season in order to determine the final playoff seeds in each conference. They carried that tournament over to this season and as the 10th seed in the East, the Hornets found themselves vying for the eighth and final playoff spot.
In the play-in tournament, the No. 10 seed faces off against the No. 9 seed while the No. 7 seed matches up against the No. 8 seed. The winner of the No. 7/No. 8 matchup gets the 7th seed. The winner of the No. 9/No. 10 seed squares off against the loser of the No. 7/No. 8 seed for the final postseason berth.
Unfortunately for the Hornets, they were eliminated by the No. 9 seed the Indiana Pacers, but throughout the season, the team showed an incredible amount of growth and development. With an abundance of young talent, the Hornets could establish themselves as a playoff contender for years to come.
Richards is hoping he can be a part of that growth and he’s eager to get to work for the upcoming season.
“I just want to play my role and doing whatever the team needs me to do to win,” Richards said. “We’re in that process of trying to be a playoff team and I feel like I can contribute to that.”