When the Charlotte Hornets and Boston Celtics play Wednesday night in Charlotte, it’ll be a bittersweet game of sorts for Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving.
First, the positive. Irving, a former Duke star and one of the NBA’s leading MVP candidates, will reunite with one of his oldest friends in Hornets wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. They played together in high school in New Jersey before taking similar paths to the pros – both spent one year in college before becoming a top-2 NBA draft selection (Irving went No. 1 overall to Cleveland in 2011; MKG went No. 2 to Charlotte in 2012).
Andthough they’re never suited up together professionally, they’ve remained close friends. In past years when Irving visited Charlotte for a game, he and Kidd-Gilchrist would dine together. That’s what led Irving to dish out praise to his longtime friend ahead of Wednesday’s game.
“MKG, the impact that he makes on their team defensively, and now coming together offensively what he’s been doing over the last month or so,” Irving said, “he’s really showcasing he’s able to step away from the basket and do some other things.
“Bringing just more energy than he did, now that he’s just contributing on the offensive end, which I’ve been just supremely proud of to see the evolution and that he’s gotten better.”
And it’s true. As someone whose reputation largely (if not solely) has rested on athleticism and defense in the past, Kidd-Gilchrist has improved his offensive efficiency in recent weeks. Over the first 30 games of this season, he made 59 percent of his shots 10-16 feet from the basket. For the rest of his career, he’s made just 41 percent from that range.
But now the bittersweet part of the game for Irving: He has to hope MKG doesn’t showcase that new offensive prowess – or his high-level defense, either – against the Celtics, and especially not against rookie Jayson Tatum, who Kidd-Gilchrist will defend.
At 6-foot-8 and 205 pounds, the former Duke star Tatum has been a revelation this season for Boston. He’s averaging 14 points, the fifth-most of any rookie in the league, while shooting an NBA-best 50 percent on 3-pointers.
“He’s just an NBA scorer and can do it in a bunch of ways,” acting Hornets coach Stephen Silas said of Tatum.
Tatum’s versatility, that he can shoot but also drive to the basket and finish around the rim, makes him a tough draw for any defender, or as Silas described the challenge of defending Boston, “a nightmare.”
Kidd-Gilchrist was questionable to play against the Celtics after missing Tuesday’s practice with an illness, but Silas said he plans to have the wing out there Wednesday night. As for what it will be like for Irving’s longtime friend and former teammate to be matched up on his current one?
“We just want to have Jayson locked in,” Irving said, “and we know he wants to stay locked in as well.”