Editor’s note: The Hornets selected James Bouknight out of UConn in the first round of the NBA draft on Thursday. For more on Bouknight, read here.
The Hornets believe they have a chance to be a playoff team next season after missing out on the playoffs by only two wins last year.
But to get there, Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak knows they must add talent to the roster through the draft and free agency.
The Hornets have the 11th overall pick in Thursday’s draft (8 p.m., ESPN), and Kupchak said he believes the Hornets can get a talented player at No. 11.
He said the Hornets are looking at a few four-year college players, but he expects whoever they draft to be 18- or 19-years old. Who the Hornets choose will largely depend on what happens before they pick.
“So that player, we’d like, if it is a young player to be a talented player with great character that would fit into what we’re trying to build here in Charlotte,” Kupchak said Monday.
The Hornets struck gold by picking eventual NBA rookie of the year LaMelo Ball with the third pick last season.
Can they do it again?
“I really believe that this is the deepest overall draft since I’ve been doing this, and combined with the power at the top and the depth of the draft,” ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “Look, having LeBron in a draft was certainly better, Zion made it more interesting that year, but none of the drafts that I can remember since 2003 have combined power at the top and depth of really good talent like this”
Here are five realistic prospects the Hornets could draft at No. 11, barring any draft day trades:
1. Jalen Johnson, SF, Duke
Johnson, 19, was one of the first players to have an individual workout with the Hornets on July 6.
Johnson, a 6-foot-8, 215-pound small forward, was one of the top prospects in the 2020 recruiting class.
He played 13 games for Duke, but missed three because of a foot injury. Johnson later returned after recovering from the ailment and averaged 11.2 points and 6.1 rebounds per game.
But in February, he abruptly withdrew from Duke and declared for the NBA draft, citing a desire to enter the NBA draft process 100% healthy.
“When he decided to opt out of the season, I think his standing dropped a little bit,” Bilas said, “and he was a top — both these guys, but especially Johnson, he was a top-10 talent. He is a top-10 talent still.”
Johnson is known for his versatility and can play multiple positions, though he’ll likely play small forward primarily.
“I think the NBA is going to be easier because there is more open space,” Johnson said, “and that’s where I thrive at. I think I showcased that pretty well.”
2. Kai Jones, F/C, Texas
Jones, who is a 6-foot-11, 218-pound forward/center, played two seasons Texas, coming off the bench in most of them. He averaged 8.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds as a sophomore, shooting 58% overall and 38% from 3-point range.
His former college coach Shaka Smart said in 2019 that Jones “has the best work ethic of any 6-11 player I have ever coached.”
Most draft experts believe Jones would likely come off the bench in his first year in the league. He would bring both size and speed to the Hornets, which is what they need, especially with centers Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo entering free agency.
Jones, 20, is ranked the 20th-best prospect in the 2021 NBA draft, according to ESPN’s list of best available draft prospects. But his ability as a big man to get up and down the floor is one reason he could be an attractive pick.
“They have a really good point guard out here in LaMelo who can really get out and pass the ball,“ Jones said. “I’m sure the people in Charlotte would be excited to see that. It would be like Showtime.”
3. Alperen Sengun, C, Turkish Super League
Kupchak said the Hornets won’t hunt for a center in the draft, but if the best available player at 11 is a center, they’d take him.
Enter Sengun, 19, who could be available when the Hornets pick, barring another team chooses him.
The 6-foot-10, 243-pound center played in the Turkish Super League this past year where he was the league’s MVP. He averaged 19.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.7 blocks in 29 games played. He shot 64.6% from the field overall.
Sengun fills the Hornets’ most pressing need at center and would likely be a starter.
He worked out for the Hornets on July 23. The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor has Sengun going No. 9 to the Sacramento Kings in his latest mock draft.
4. Corey Kispert, SF, Gonzaga
Kispert is likely one of the players Kupchak was talking about when he said the Hornets were considering drafting a four-year player.
Kispert, 22, played all four years at Gonzaga. The 6-foot-7, 230-pound small forward was a consensus All-American in 2021 and helped lead the Zags to the national championship game.
He won the Julius Erving award given to college basketball’s best small forward after averaging 18.6 points and 5 rebounds, while shooting 53% from the floor overall, and 44% from 3. He made 91 3-pointers in 2021, which was seventh-best in the country.
The NBA has become a shooter’s league in recent years, especially with the rise of Stephen Curry. Adding another shooter would be beneficial to the Hornets and Kispert is one of the best shooters in the draft.
The Hornets had the 14th-best 3-point percentage in the league at 36.9% during the 2020-21 season, attempting 37 3’s per game. The Hornets had a workout with Kispert on July 23.
“I think you have some stars at the top like we’ve continued to talk about, but whether it’s Josh Giddey, Franz Wagner, Corey Kispert or Moses Moody, all those guys I think have starter potential in the NBA,” ESPN analyst and former Brooklyn Nets GM Bobby Marks said in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.
5. Moses Moody, SG, Arkansas
Moody, a 6-foot-5, 211-pound shooting guard, is also an option. But most draft experts don’t have Moody dropping past the top 10.
Moody, 19, is one of the better scorers in the draft. He averaged 16.8 points per game and grabbed 5.8 rebounds. He shot 42.7% from the floor overall.
The Hornets held an individual workout with Moody on July 22.
“I feel like it’s a really good team and a really young team,” Moody said of the Hornets. “So I feel like I can really get in and help the team really elevate and add my shooting and other abilities — defense and playing both sides of the ball.
“I feel like I can develop and help grow with the team almost ... since we’re so young.”
While the Hornets don’t necessarily need a shooting guard, Moody would add depth at the position, especially if Malik Monk, who is entering free agency, does not return.
Ziaire Williams was also one of the top recruits in the 2020 draft class. The 6-foot-8, 185-pound forward played one season at Stanford where he averaged 10.7 points per game and 4.6 rebounds in 20 games played.
He also shot 37% from the floor and 29% from 3.
The Hornets worked out Williams on July 25. He has good size for a small forward and upside. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic shortened the opportunities he had to be seen.
“Ziaire Williams out of Stanford, no one was able to see him, NBA teams, prior to his season at Stanford,” Marks said. “So then you just have this small body of work to go off of for the guys who played maybe 12, 13 games.”
Hornets Summer League schedule
▪ Aug. 8 vs. Portland, 6 p.m., NBA TV
▪ Aug. 9 vs. Sacramento, 6 p.m., NBA TV
▪ Aug. 12 vs. San Antonio, 3 p.m., ESPNU
▪ Aug. 14 vs. Toronto, 7 p.m., NBATV