Charlotte Hornets

Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein would welcome chance to play for Michael Jordan, Hornets

Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein takes a breather after a pre-draft workout at the Hornets' practice facility Wednesday morning.
Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein takes a breather after a pre-draft workout at the Hornets' practice facility Wednesday morning.

As a projected high pick in the June 25 NBA draft, Kentucky center-forward Willie Cauley-Stein has chosen to do all solo workouts for teams.

That can get monotonous and tiring. But Wednesday was a bit different than his previous workouts. Wednesday the “GOAT” was in the gym.

“GOAT,” as in Greatest-Of-All-Time, Cauley-Stein meant. Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, a six-time champion playing for the Chicago Bulls, was watching from the sideline and that got Cauley-Stein’s rapt attention.

“He asked why they didn’t let me shoot 3s” at Kentucky, Cauley-Stein recalled of his conversation with Jordan. “He said I’ve got good mechanics and showed a little range. That’s crazy coming from such a legend.”

So Cauley-Stein would be very receptive to the Hornets drafting him if he’s still available with Charlotte’s ninth pick?

“Words can’t describe it, to be in the presence of the GOAT,” Cauley-Stein said, glancing Jordan’s way. “It would be wild. A dream-come-true, honestly.”

Jordan and team vice chairman Curtis Polk typically come to Charlotte this time of year for basketball and business meetings leading up to the draft. Jordan will participate in the Hornets’ annual day of service Monday. This year that program is themed to helping military families and the team has an event Monday morning at Central Piedmont Community College.

Cauley-Stein, a 7-footer, was one of seven non-seniors at Kentucky to turn pro after the Final Four. The difference between Cauley-Stein and most of those fellow Wildcats is he used three of his four seasons of college eligibility before making the jump to the NBA.

Cauley-Stein was somewhat a late bloomer who focused as much on football (he was a wide receiver) as basketball growing up in Kansas. He never attempted a 3-point shot in a game at Kentucky, so he’s been surprising teams with that skill in these workouts.

“People say I don’t have a jump shot, so that’s what I’ve been working on,” Cauley-Stein said. “I think it’s getting proven I’ve got good mechanics, I make my free throws. I handle the ball, too. I can do a lot of things I didn’t do in college.”

Cauley-Stein said Kentucky’s roster was so deep, with such a wide skill set, that players were encouraged to stick to what they do best, so NBA scouts didn’t necessarily see everything each Wildcat could do. Another Kentucky player, shooting guard Devin Booker, made a similar point when he worked out in Charlotte.

“That’s why we were so good -- everybody bought into their roles and didn’t try to do anything just to show they could do that,” said Cauley-Stein, who averaged eight points and 6.2 rebounds in his three Kentucky seasons.

“We stayed in our own lanes and we stayed together. We did what coach (John Calipari) asked of us both as a team and individually and that’s why we were 38-1.”

Cauley-Stein might be the top prospect the Hornets have auditioned so far. He worked out for the New York Knicks, who hold the No. 4 overall pick, and could be a strong candidate for the Orlando Magic’s No. 5 pick or the Sacramento Kings at No. 6.

Cauley-Stein is a big fan of Kentucky teammate Booker, who he says is more than a jump-shooter.

“He’s a hooper. I worked out with him the last month,” Cauley-Stein said. “He’s real athletic, all kind of trick dunks. He can get up.”

Henderson opts in to next season on contract: The Hornets announced Wednesday afternoon that shooting guard Gerald Henderson has exercised the player option in his contract for next season. That guarantees him a $6 million salary for the 2015-16 season.

Henderson played in 80 of 82 games last season, starting 72. He averaged 12 points, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists last season. The Hornets traded shooting guard Lance Stephenson to the Los Angeles Clippers Monday night.

With Henderson and center Al Jefferson ($13.5 million) both opting in to their contracts for next season, the Hornets won’t have big room under the salary cap in July. Their best tool in free-agency will likely be the mid-level exception, which means a player making about $5.5 million in first-season salary.

Bonnell: 704-358-5129; @rick_bonnell

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