In center Al Jefferson and point guard Kemba Walker, the Charlotte Hornets have filled the two most challenging positions in the NBA.
Jefferson’s low-post scoring elevated the then-Bobcats to the playoffs. Walker’s explosive drives to the basket made him this team’s second offensive option. But for both those players to maximize their talent, the Hornets need to upgrade their outside shooting at small forward, shooting guard or both.
They were in the bottom third of the league last season in field-goal percentage, free-throw percentage and 3-point percentage, uncommon for a playoff team. The Hornets have auditioned many of college basketball’s top shooters in preparation for Thursday’s draft.
And if they choose to address this flaw in free agency, an Observer annual study of the NBA’s top 100 players suggests there are opportunities. Shooters at the wing positions often have long careers, but they tend to change teams more frequently than big men or point guards.
Coach Steve Clifford closely monitored the playoffs looking for trends. He found it no coincidence that the teams reaching the NBA Finals – champion San Antonio and runner-up Miami – finished the regular-season first and second in field-goal percentage.
“If the goal is to win ‘it’ (the championship), then look at San Antonio: They’ve got guys who can do both,” shoot from range and drive, Clifford said.
“The greatness of Manu Ginobili is he’s an exceptional 3-point shooter (career 37 percent), and you can’t keep him out of the paint. (LeBron) James has made himself into a very good 3-point shooter (40 percent and 38 percent the past two seasons) with exceptional ability to drive the ball.
“The best players can do both.”
The Hornets don’t generally have those players at the wing positions. Starting small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchirst attempted nine 3-pointers last season, making one. Starting shooting guard Gerald Henderson attempted 115 3-pointers last season, making 40.
A jarring statistic: Last season the Bobcats were outscored at the 3-point line 1,995 points to 1,548. That works out to a 5.5-point deficit per game for a team that had little margin for error in victories.
So, yes, this is a problem. But the Hornets’ front office has the resources this summer – two first-round picks and abundant space under the salary cap – to find alternatives.
“I think shooting is hard to find – especially mid-range shooting,” Hornets general manager Rich Cho said. “You don’t see a lot of kids practicing that. Shooting is at a premium now because a lot of teams want to take 3s instead of long 2s, just from an efficiency standpoint.
“In an ideal world,” Cho added, “you want a shooter who can also really defend. But in the real world, there’s not a lot of that.”
The good news: While shooters tend to have long NBA careers, they often go through several teams by the end of their careers.
Each June the past three years the Observer has ranked the top 100 players in the NBA, looking for trends on how the Bobcats/Hornets might best be built.
Eighteen players in this June’s top 100 could be described as primarily shooters at small forward or shooting guard. Of those 18, eight have played for at least three different NBA teams, topping out at six for Washington Wizards small forward Trevor Ariza.
That would suggest while teams always have use for a shooter, their skill sets aren’t generally considered so irreplaceable that these players never reach the open market, where the Hornets could sign one.
Think of an elite shooter’s career as that of Dell Curry, still the all-time leading scorer for the Hornets. A 40-percent 3-point shooter, Curry lasted 16 NBA seasons, but he did so by stringing together stops in Utah, Cleveland, Charlotte, Milwaukee and Toronto.
Before free-agency begins, the Hornets will have three selections in Thursday night’s draft: Picks No. 9, 24 and 45. There should be abundant options at No. 9, if the Hornets address shooting at that spot, possibly including Creighton’s Doug McDermott, Michigan’s Nik Stauskas and Michigan State’s Gary Harris.
Here’s a look at what the draft and free agency might offer in the way of shooting:
Draft candidates (in alphabetical order):
Comment: He has a good build for an NBA shooting guard and the physical tools to be a solid defender. The issues that caused him to lose college eligibility are being closely examined around the NBA in pre-draft background checks. He’s likely to go in the mid-teens, but there’s some small chance he’d last to the Hornets’ No. 24 pick.
Comment: He measured out a little short of ideal size for an NBA shooting guard. But Hornets coach Steve Clifford was impressed by Harris’ competitiveness and on-the-ball defense.
Comment: Hood has good size and potentially can play both small forward and shooting guard. His workout for the Hornets was cut short when he became nauseated, which happened several times during his prior college season.
Comment: McDermott is a creative scorer all around the court. His range is obvious and he’s also created an effective mid-range game, with a one-legged pull-up reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki’s style.
Comment: Stauskas demonstrated last season he’s more than just a spot-up shooter. He can get to the rim off the dribble and make plays for teammates.
Free agents available in July (listed alphabetically):
Comment: As good a defender as he is a scorer. The Wizards value him, so they’re likely to go hard at re-signing him.
Comment: Like Ariza, Deng is strong at the defensive end as well. His productivity slipped after the trade from the Bulls to the Cavaliers, perhaps as he adjusted to new teammates.
Comment: For all of Hayward’s potential (he’s also a good ballhandler/playmaker), his shooting percentages weren’t ideal for a primary scoring option last season.
Comment: The Rockets want him back, but if they become seriously involved in pursuing Carmelo Anthony, they could pass up on Parsons to maximize salary-cap flexibility.
Comment: Stephenson posted strong numbers entering free agency, but he also had periods of immature behavior. Larry Bird, the head of the Pacers’ front office, says they’re prepared to pay big to retain Stephenson.