If you thought Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak looked out of place at a draft lottery, well, he thought so, too.
“This was the first lottery and, I hope, the last lottery that I ever attend,” Kupchak said after walking off the stage in a hotel ballroom with the 11th overall pick in the June 21 NBA draft.
Kupchak’s Los Angeles Lakers teams, over roughly 18 seasons, were constantly in the playoffs, so the NBA’s annual May festivity to determine the top three picks in the draft didn’t typically concern him.
Then Michael Jordan picked him to remake the Hornets’ basketball operation. Kupchak inherited an aging, expensive Charlotte roster that went 36-46 each of the past two seasons, both playoff misses.
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With all that against him, it’s important they hit on this draft pick because there might not be many other ways to enhance the roster this off-season.
The lottery is actually determined in another room, where Hornets assistant general manager Buzz Peterson was sequestered, along with representatives from each of the other participating teams. For the sake of ESPN’s telecast, the NBA theatrically announces the picks from 14 up to the lucky No. 1 (the Phoenix Suns this year).
So Kupchak knew early on he was out of the running for one of the top 3, which would have granted access to the likes of Arizona big man DeAndre Ayton or European guard-forward Luka Doncic.
Kupchak did get a heads-up, but only by a second or two before deputy commissioner Mark Tatum called out the Hornets’ name. Tatum was standing directly in front of Kupchak’s seat on the set, so he could see each placard come out of the envelope.
Kupchak hoped against hope that when No. 11 was revealed, the Boston Celtics’ logo would pop out, meaning the Hornets had jumped to the top 3.
“A little bummed out,” Kupchak described of his immediate reaction. “A 2.9 percent chance (the odds in the weighted lottery of the Hornets making the top 3) isn’t much of a chance, but you’ve still got a chance.”
Worried about slipping
Kupchak said he walked into the ballroom more concerned about slipping to the 12th or 13th pick than hopeful of jumping into the top 3. That reflected the odds, since there was about a 7 percent chance, under the weighting, of a backslide.
The foundation of the Lakers’ success when Kupchak was in charge might have been more a function of trades (Kobe Bryant through Pau Gasol) or free agency (Shaquille O’Neal), but Kupchak loves immersing himself in draft preparation.
He mentioned at his introductory news conference last month there is no substitute for a general manager personally seeing prospects rather than just relying on scouts’ reports or video. Since he wasn’t hired to replace Rich Cho until the end of the Hornets’ season, he doesn’t have a winter of scouting to prepare for this decision.
He stayed connected with the college and NBA games after the Lakers fired him, but still, he’s playing catch-up. He traveled to Europe after getting the job. He watched video of two college games on the flight to Chicago on Monday night.
Kupchak will start networking this week in and around the NBA scouting combine now that the draft order is settled. He said in April he was open to possibly trading the pick and reinforced that as an option during his comments following the lottery.
“We’ll obviously pursue all the options how to use the pick,” Kupchak said, “but right now, we’re going to concentrate on using the pick to pick a player.”
If they stay at No. 11, the possibilities could include forwards (Villanova’s Mikal Bridges, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges and Kentucky’s Kevin Knox) and point guards (Alabama’s Collin Sexton and Kentucky’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander).
I’m really intrigued by Gilgeous-Alexander, who has a 7-foot wingspan. I saw him in the NCAA tournament in Boise, and thought his length, fluidity and ability to get to the rim off the dribble would be a great complement to Kemba Walker. But I don’t get paid to scout.
Kupchak said between 40 and 50 prospects will come to Charlotte between now and the draft for workouts (the Hornets have the 55th overall pick in the second round, which originally belonged to the Cleveland Cavaliers).
I asked Kupchak for an overview of this draft.
“I think there’s a little bit of everything,” Kupchak said. “A lot of the positions are interchangeable, which is really good for today’s game.”
Interchangeable sounds good; it’s not as if filling just one hole fixes this roster.