The Charlotte Hornets cannot afford another draft-day meltdown. Their management has whiffed on franchise-altering decisions time after time with the likes of Adam Morrison, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Noah Vonleh, and Frank Kaminsky. As a small market team lacking the cap space to woo superstar free agents, they have no choice but to build their core through the draft and fill it out with lesser signees.
This year, they hold a top three pick for the sixth time in franchise history. They have to capitalize on it.
The Draft and Mediocrity
Charlotte won the No. 3 overall pick despite having a seven percent chance of landing it in the NBA Draft Lottery. Unlike most of the other lottery franchises, they’re coming off a moderately successful season that saw them finish ninth in the Eastern Conference. Not only that, but the Hornets have a roster loaded with talented young players such as Devonte’ Graham, Miles Bridges, P.J. Washington, Malik Monk, and Dwayne Bacon.
At the same time, this is a franchise that has been uncannily mediocre over the past decade. They finished somewhere between the seventh and the 11th seed in the East seven times over that period, making the playoffs just twice. Charlotte failed to advance to the second round either year, something they haven’t done since the 2002 playoffs.
At the end of the year, the Hornets seem to perpetually find themselves in no man’s land—they aren’t good enough to compete in the postseason, nor are they bad enough to earn a top draft pick.
Finally a Top Pick
That changed this year, though it was a result of the lottery’s fateful ping-pong balls instead of Charlotte’s middling 23-42 record. At the moment, the franchise is currently staring down a fairly thin, top-heavy draft class that doesn’t have a clear-cut order in place. Many of this year’s prospects don’t offer the same franchise-changing potential as those from years past, but the Hornets’ position should enable them to select someone who could contribute right away.
Experts still can’t settle on a consensus No. 1 pick with the draft less than a month away. However, the majority of them agree that Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, Memphis’s James Wiseman, and NBL star LaMelo Ball represent the top three picks in the draft. While all three are enticing, only one of them would fill the gaping hole in Charlotte’s roster.
What They Need
The Hornets have one glaring need: rim protection. Last season, they ranked 29th in defensive rebounds per game and 25th in blocks per game. Their defense finished 12th in points allowed per game thanks to Head Coach James Borrego’s schemes and their low foul rate, but their paint protection was abysmal.
Veteran Cody Zeller is the only true center on the roster, and his 1.7% block percentage ranked 58th in the NBA last season. Guards like Danny Green, Kent Bazemore, and James Harden put up better marks. Backup big man Bismack Biyombo remains undersized and offensively inept, and Borrego rarely includes Knicks transplant Willy Hernangómez in his rotation.
The Perfect Fit
In their best-case scenario, Charlotte drafts Wiseman with the third pick. The 7-foot-1, 235-pound big only played three games at Memphis last season, but he showed NBA scouts enough. In a display of complete dominance, he put up averages of 19.7 points, 10.7 rebounds, and three blocks while shooting 77% from the field in just 23 minutes per contest.
As a prospective NBA center, Wiseman is essentially perfect. Not only does he have the size, frame, and wingspan to rebound the ball and patrol the paint, but he’s also shown off a feathery touch both around the rim and from behind the arc. As long as he stays healthy and continues to develop his playmaking and shooting, Wiseman could evolve into a nightmare for opposing bigs at the next level.
Toppin, the reigning Naismith Player of the Year, would likely be considered a top three pick if he came from a Power Five conference. The 6-foot-9 power forward put up 20 points and 7.5 rebounds per game for the Flyers last season while shooting an incredibly efficient 63% from the field and 39% from three, decimating his Atlantic 10 opponents. At his size, his rare combination of athleticism, playmaking, and shooting makes him the most NBA-ready player in his class.
Okongwu also deserves more recognition than he’s received leading up to this draft. The former Trojan averaged 16.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game in his freshmen year, earning him the reputation of the best defensive big man in the nation. He’s only 6-foot-9, but his 245-pound frame, 7-foot-2 inch wingspan, and elite defensive instincts more than make up for it. Okongwu won’t bring an offensive skill set comparable to Wiseman or Toppin’s, but he would be a surefire plug-and-play at the five for Barrego.
Charlotte also has the 32nd and 56th overall picks, and they’d be well served to use them on more polished 3-and-D wings. The team finished last in points per game and field goals attempted last year, and they still need to improve their three-point shooting. Prospects like Saddiq Bey, Jaden McDaniels, Jordan Nwora, John Petty Jr., and Isaiah Livers would all fit the bill.
The NBA Draft will be held virtually on Nov. 18.
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