Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's improvement a bright spot in tough Hornets season

As the Charlotte Hornets limp to the finish of a disappointing season, all Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can do is watch helplessly from the sideline.

A sprained left ankle has prevented him from playing since March 28, and he called it "really the hardest thing I've had to do since I've been in the league."

That's saying a lot for the former No. 2 overall pick out of Kentucky. He's since reconstructed a sagging jump shot while learning the ropes and trying to be the vocal leader the Hornets need.

If there is any solace for Kidd-Gilchrist and the Hornets during such a trying season, it's that the jack-of-all-trades defender showed signs in his third season of being the irreplaceable piece owner Michael Jordan envisioned when the team drafted him in 2012.

His tireless work with coach Mark Price to improve his shooting has made him a more balanced threat. Coach Steve Clifford said that's helping Kidd-Gilchrist take his already strong defense to another level.

"He's totally changed his shooting mechanics really more than any player I've ever seen," Clifford said. "It's increased his confidence level. His whole leadership, assertiveness on the court and his understanding of the game has come out more for his teammates as he's gotten more confident."

It's the kind of presence the Hornets desperately need. They entered the season with high hopes after adding Lance Stephenson in free agency. But that signing hasn't panned out and Kidd-Gilchrist, Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson have all missed big chunks of time to injury as the Hornets have faded in the East.

One of the few bright spots has been Kidd-Gilchrist's development. The Hornets are 27-28 this year with him in the lineup and 7-18 without him. Opponents score fewer points, shoot worse and get to the free throw line fewer times when he is on the floor.

"I don't like getting scored on by anyone in the league," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "That's what it comes down to. I'm just a competitor at heart."

The Hornets have started a campaign to lobby for All-Defensive consideration for Kidd-Gilchrist, building a website, www.MKGSecurity.com, playing on his ability to "lock down" opponents. They've distributed a packet, including MKG Security yard signs and combination locks to promote him.

Kidd-Gilchrist only played in 55 games this year, making awards a tough sell. But the Hornets believe he's laid the groundwork toward becoming an impact player. This year he had 12 double-doubles to only one last year, and he had 16 double-digit rebounding games compared to two last season.

"Last year he was a really good individual defender and a very solid team defender. But now he's much more verbal and takes much more of a lead in organizing our defense," Clifford said. "I think he is one of the few guys in this league who has the ability to make it hard on many of the primary scorers."

Kidd-Gilchrist's shooting woes short-circuited his first two seasons in the league. He shot just 27 percent on attempts from 3-10 feet away from the rim as a rookie and a ghastly 14 percent from 10-16 feet.

The numbers improved only slightly in his second season, prompting shooting guru Mark Price to work closely with Kidd-Gilchrist to remake his shot. Now he's completely changed his form in an effort to find some consistency.

This year, Kidd-Gilchrist made 50 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet and 37 percent from 16 feet out to the 3-point line, up from 31 percent as a rookie.

Not being a liability on one end of the floor has emboldened Kidd-Gilchrist on the defensive side, which has always been his specialty.

"I came into the NBA and I just wanted to fit in," said the 21-year-old Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I was 18 years old. I just wanted to fit in with everyone and work as hard as possible. I feel like that I'm getting to that point."

Even playing for glitzy Kentucky, Kidd-Gilchrist never was a flashy player. His game is all about grit, toughness and defense. And he makes no apologies for it.

"At the end of the day, when I'm finished playing and people say my name, I want them to say he was a great defender and he was a winner at heart," he said. "That's all I want. For everybody to accept me for who I am."