The Charlotte Hornets had no particular interest in returning to the draft-lottery business, but now that is their fate.
They chased the playoffs to the extent that 10-season veteran center Al Jefferson had fluid drained from his right knee three times in 10 days, attempting to keep playing.
But Friday’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks eliminated them from the eight-team Eastern Conference playoff field and the consolation prize is most likely a pick in the 8-12 range of the June 25 NBA draft. They also have a second-round pick.
Five thoughts about two months out from the draft, pertaining to the Hornets, the Carolinas and in general:
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What about those three Duke freshmen…
The first move came Thursday when center Jahlil Okafor announced he’s turning pro. I can’t imagine forward Justise Winslow not doing the same. They’re both top-10, probably top-5 selections. They won the national championship and helped form the core of what Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called one of his all-time favorite teams.
Okafor can have quick impact as a post scorer, though I think his lateral-movement issues will cause some struggles on defense. I love how hard Winslow plays and I think he has some Michael Kidd-Gilchrist-type qualities on defense.
The question is whether point guard Tyus Jones should also turn pro. I compare Jones to Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis a year ago – a point guard without great size or athleticism who showed in one college season great leadership and passing ability.
Jones can always get stronger, but I don’t know that staying another college season will significantly change the NBA’s impression of him. Entering the draft off being named Most Outstanding Player at the Final Four is a pretty solid resume-topper.
A mock draft on nba.com projects Jones going somewhere in the early twenties so he probably doesn’t fall in either of the Hornets’ picks.
If the Hornets win the lottery, they should take...
Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns in a narrow choice over Okafor. Good as Okafor is going to be offensively, Towns is more of a two-way player as far as offense and defense. Hornets coach Steve Clifford needs scoring but not totally at the expense of defense.
What happened to last year’s top pick?
Probably the question I got asked the most this Hornets season was "Why doesn’t rookie Noah Vonleh play more?"
Implicit to that question was "If you are the ninth overall pick, then the team drafting you is obliged to play you a lot. And if that’s not so, then perhaps you shouldn’t have been drafted ninth."
All the way back to draft night the Hornets were transparent in saying they saw Vonleh, who played a single college season at Indiana, as a long-term investment. My analogy would be the high school pitcher with the 90-mph. fastball who starts out in Double-A ball.
Vonleh got 23 minutes Wednesday against the Toronto Raptors. He shot 1-of-7 from the field and at times looked overwhelmed defensively. That doesn’t mean he was the wrong choice. It just means – as the Hornets always anticipated – he probably wouldn’t contribute much as a rookie.
Keep in mind the two players frequently mentioned for the Hornets’ pick – Sacramento’s Nik Stauskas and Chicago’s Doug McDermott – also did little their rookie seasons.
There is no reason to think Vonleh’s limited contribution as a rookie means he won’t be good down the road. He’s long and athletic and Clifford likes how hard to plays.
That raises a question: Do the Hornets need yet another young project out of the 2015 draft? Does that help in a situation where the Hornets strive to win now?
I think not. If I were the Hornets I’d look hard at using the lottery pick as a commodity. Search out a trade for a veteran who addresses an immediate need. A shooter like Arron Afflalo (who can opt out of his contract with Portland this summer) could really help.
If you do draft, find a shooter.
By-and-large I’m wary of drafting for need over value. But in this case, that need is a compelling issue. The Hornets spent last summer looking to improve their outside shooting, drafting P.J. Hairston and signing Marvin Williams and Brian Roberts.
It got worse, not better. The Hornets’ 3-point percentage – worst in the NBA – dropped from 35.1 percent last season to 31.5 percent this season.
As Clifford frequently says, your spacing is your shooting. If opposing defenses don’t respect your 3-point shooting, they can clog the lane to double-team Jefferson or cut off drives by Kemba Walker or Lance Stephenson.
Hairston had an up-and-down rookie season but Clifford has said more than once Hairston has the talent to end up an NBA starter.
Two wing shooters who could be available when the Hornets draft: Croatian Mario Hezonja (42 percent 3-point shooting in the Euro League) and Kentucky’s Devin Booker (41 percent).
What becomes of J.P Tokoto?
I was pretty surprised Wednesday night to read the Yahoo Sports report that North Carolina’s J.P Tokoto intends to turn pro.
I submit to the conventional wisdom that unless a player can say with confidence he’s a first-round pick (which guarantees two seasons of salary) it’s unwise to renounce remaining college eligibility. When in doubt, stay in school.
Then I read colleague Andrew Carter’s contrarian thoughts on Tokoto’s situation. If Tokoto really believes what Roy Williams wants from him runs counter to his NBA aspirations, then no one is going to be happy. So whether or not he’s drafted – in the first round or at all – might be secondary to his moving on to whatever he thinks will make him a living in pro basketball.
Bonnell: (704) 358-5129; @rick_bonnell
Key Dates leading up to the NBA Draft:
April 26 – Early-entry eligibility deadline.
May 12-17 – NBA Combine in Chicago.
May 19 – Draft Lottery.
June 15 – Early-entry withdrawal deadline.
June 25 – NBA Draft in New York City.