Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford spoke often during the pre-draft process about wanting his roster to include more size.
Apparently that desire won out over a quick fix for shooting at small forward. The Hornets chose Indiana power forward Noah Vonleh ninth in the NBA draft Thursday night.
In doing so, the Hornets passed over Creighton small forward Doug McDermott, who shot 45 percent from 3-point range in four college seasons.
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Then the Hornets used the 24th pick on Connecticut point guard Shabazz Napier, whose rights were immediately traded to the Miami Heat. The Heat sent the 26th pick, 55th pick and a future second-rounder to the Hornets.
Via that 26th pick, the Hornets will end up with former North Carolina shooting guard P.J. Hairston, who spent most of last winter playing in the Development League after the NCAA ruled him ineligible.
Hairston, 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds, averaged 21.8 points for the Texas Legends, shooting 45 percent overall and 36 percent from the NBA 3-point line. Hairston is expected to challenge incumbent starter Gerald Henderson for minutes.
Vonleh was projected in many mock drafts to go as high as fourth and no lower than seventh. He slipped past eighth when the Sacramento Kings selected Michigan shooting guard Nik Stauskas.
Vonleh, 18, played just one college season, but he is massive. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, he was measured as having a 7-foot-5 wingspan. He averaged 11.3 points and nine rebounds last season.
This was the second consecutive draft in which the Bobcats/Hornets drafted an Indiana big man. Last June they chose 7-footer Cody Zeller fourth overall.
Vonleh shot 52 percent from field and 49 percent from the college 3-point line last season. That ability to shoot from the perimeter could make him a good complement to Hornets center Al Jefferson in the low post.
“I can step out and hit some 3s. Play well in the pick-and-roll and defend pretty well,” Vonleh said during a conference call with Charlotte media.
Vonleh never worked out for the Hornets because he expected to go well before the ninth pick, but he is familiar with his new team. He has spoken several times with Jefferson, whose agent, Jeff Schwartz, also represents Vonleh.
Vonleh didn’t play with Zeller, but they knew each other through mutual Indiana ties. Vonleh said Zeller advised him on the pre-draft process and texted him congratulations Thursday night.
“He helped me in the draft process – it was good to have him in my corner,” Vonleh said.
Like Zeller, Vonleh has ball-handling and shooting skills players of his height do not commonly possess.
“Growing up I was real versatile. They played me as a point-forward all through high school,” Vonleh said. “I didn’t get to do too much of that in college. But handling the ball is something I have always been able to do, and hope to do at the next level.”
Drafting Vonleh could offer some insurance against the possibility of the Hornets losing Josh McRoberts, their starting power forward last season. He chose to opt out of his contract to become an unrestricted free agent next month.
Hornets general manager Rich Cho has said the team wants to re-sign him and McRoberts indicated at the end of the season he would like to keep playing in Charlotte. However money will probably be a big factor in where he signs.
Vonleh will not turn 19 until August. He reclassified his high school recruiting class up a year, entering college early. The Bobcats/Hornets have made a habit of drafting very young players; small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and center Bismack Biyombo were the youngest players in their respective draft classes.
Clifford often spoke over the past few weeks about the need to get bigger. He noted how much size the San Antonio Spurs assembled as a huge factor in them winning the championship against the Miami Heat this month.
“With San Antonio, one of the reasons they got back to the top is they knew they needed more size along the perimeter. So they went out and got (6-7 small forward) Kawhi Leonard,” Clifford said recently.
“At the end of the day, (the NBA) is still a match-up league. It’s different from college, which is more five-man basketball. In the playoffs, you’re going to go at match-ups. You’ve got to have guys (big enough to) get their own shots and guys to make it hard on those guys.”
With the 45th overall pick, the Hornets selected Dwight Powell, a 6-10, 240-pound power forward from Stanford. However, they will send Powell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a deal that will eventually offer the Hornets additional cap relief.
An NBA source confirmed that the Cavaliers will assume the salary of center Brendan Haywood ($2 million), which should put the Hornets about $15 million under the salary cap.
With the 55th pick, acquired from Miami, the Hornets selected Semaj Christon, a point guard from Xavier. The Boston Globe reported after midnight the Hornets traded Christon to the Oklahoma City Thunder.