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Tom Talks: Charlotte Hornets prospects always looking to improve

Kemba Walker on NBA free agency

Kemba Walker will factor the Charlotte Hornets’ ability to win sooner than later in his free agent decision. It sounded April 12th like he anticipates being in the loop about possible roster upgrades.
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Kemba Walker will factor the Charlotte Hornets’ ability to win sooner than later in his free agent decision. It sounded April 12th like he anticipates being in the loop about possible roster upgrades.

As the June 20 NBA draft approaches, teams bring in groups of players to dissect and inspect. The Charlotte Hornets bring their ninth group Saturday, 10th group Monday and 11th group Wednesday.

It’s an audition, and everybody needs to remember his lines.

Inside Spectrum Center and outside the Hornets’ practice court Saturday is a table with a pile of numbers, a box of safety pins with which to attach the numbers, and cards that thank participants for trying out. There’s also something about answering a question.

Oops. The question, as well as the numbers and thank you cards, are for the women who will try out for the Honey Bees, the Hornets’ dance team, Saturday afternoon.

If the players don’t have to answer a question, what do they do?

“A lot of competing, a lot of shooting, a lot of conditioning,” says Jordan Bone, a point guard who played three seasons at Tennessee. “You’ve got to be in tip-top shape, and hit shots when you’re tired.”

Watching will be general manager Mitch Kupchak, assistant general manager Buzz Peterson, coach James Borrego and numerous other staff members. No matter what a player does, somebody will see it.

No pressure, Jordan Bone. Hit every shot, show no fatigue, play precise defense and you’ll be fine.

Bone was second-team all-SEC last season. He averaged 13.5 points, almost double what he did as a sophomore. He shot 46.5% from the field and 35.5% on 3s. The NBA will want to see evidence that he can hit from distance. He also plays very good defense.

But his signature number is 2.91. He set a Tennessee single-season assist to turnover ratio of 2.91.

“Taking care of the ball is something I take pride in,” Bone says.

The Hornets want to see all the candidates shoot. Bone goes on a tear, hitting from the corners and the key, one, two, three, four, five, six in a row. He’s been working on that shot.

“That’s what I love about this game,” says Bone. “There’s nothing you can perfect, there’s something you can always get better at.”

He does it wearing Tennessee orange shoes, the only player on the court in orange.

“A lot of people have been giving me a hard time about them,” says Bone. “These are broken in. I’m just gonna rock ’em.”

Two of Bone’s teammates also are in the audition process, although not with Charlotte Saturday. They are forwards Grant Williams (of Charlotte), and Admiral Schofield.

“I love those guys to death,” says Bone. “I know that they’ll leave it all on the court. There’s no doubt in my mind that those guys will succeed.”

If Bone is drafted, he’s projected as a second-round pick. Yet he stood out at the NBA Draft Combine, the best athlete among point guards there.

With Bone Saturday are O’Shae Brissett (Syracuse), C.J. Massinburg (Buffalo), Isaiah Roby (Nebraska), Simi Shittu (Vanderbilt) and Ethan Happ, Wisconsin.

Listed at 6-feet-10, Shittu and Happ are the big men. They know each other by the end of practice and are paired in the final segment. Obviously tired, they shoot, run around a cone and shoot, put on a pump fake, slide to their right and shoot. They shoot from distance.

Happ has a nice release and arc, the release and trajectory never varying. He averaged 17.3 points last season, second highest among Saturday’s candidates. Massinburg leads with an average of 18.2. A guard, Massinburg took 708 3s in his four seasons with Buffalo, making 273.

Happ took 16 in four seasons at Wisconsin, 11 as a junior and five as a senior. His lone make came when he was a junior.

His role at Wisconsin was not to shoot 3s. His role was to play big. He was first-team Big Ten last season, and won the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award as the nation’s best center. He averaged 10.1 rebounds and an impressive 4.5 assists. He’s a second-round pick; one mock draft has him going to the Hornets at No. 53.

At Wisconsin -- where Happ got to know current Charlotte big man Frank Kaminsky – he was active. He stole the ball and blocked shots. He passed beautifully out of double teams.

In the NBA, his role will change, and it has to include outside shooting. When you look at the back-to-the-basket centers who once ruled basketball, their pictures might as well be in black and white.

“I tried to show ‘em I could knock down a 3,” Happ says about his work Saturday.

I didn’t know you could shoot like that, I tell him.

“You thought I was shooting good?” asks Happ. “OK, you see that coach over there?”

I see about 20.

“You need to tell him for me,” Happ says.

Terry Godwin’s NFL dream

Fifty-one seconds into our post-practice interview, Terry Godwin runs away. Although the Carolina Panthers organized team activities ended several minutes ago, punt returners are summoned back to work.

Godwin is a rookie receiver from Georgia. He suffered some leg injuries early last season, but finished with 22 receptions for 373 yards, an average of 17 yards, and three touchdowns. He returned punts

Godwin was Carolina’s final pick in the 2019 draft, the 23rd player taken in the seventh round. He’s 5-11, 185 pounds, and an athlete.

The Atlanta Braves selected him out of high school in the 33rd round of the 2015 Major League Baseball draft. He played for Callaway High in Hogansville, Ga., about 50 miles southwest of Atlanta near the Alabama state line.

A center fielder, Godwin says he hasn’t swung a bat since the end of his freshman year at Georgia. Why football?

“When you’re that blessed, and have those options, it’s God’s calling,” Godwin says after the punt return team frees him. “I sat down with my family and prayed about it. And He told me what decision to make, and I feel like I made the right decision.”

Godwin smiles

“Here I am today.”

He’s an easy interview. I tell him that I know it’s hot, and that he put in overtime with the return team, and I won’t keep him long. He says that talking is no problem. Godwin often refers to God, and regularly calls me “sir,”’ even when I try to dissuade him.

“The NFL basically is a dream come true,” says Godwin. “You’re out here with guys you looked up to, and you get a chance to play with at the highest level.”

I ask him the players he looked up to, and expect him to name Carolina’s veterans. But if you’re a rookie, everybody is a veteran. And they’re all receivers.

“Like D.J. Moore, Curtis Samuel,” says Godwin. “And then when Chris (Hogan) got here (from the New England Patriots), it was a two or three-time (two) Super Bowl champ. He’s played with the best. There’s just a lot of knowledge in that (receivers’) room.”

You played in Cam Newton’s seven-on-seven tournament, correct?

“Yes sir, says Godwin. “In my senior year of high school. He’s the same guy he was then. He’s a big playful guy, but he can be serious between these white lines.”

Does he remember you?

“Oh, yes sir, we’ve kept in touch.”

There are 11 other wide receivers at Monday’s OTA session. What can you offer a team so deep at the position?

“I offer being a great teammate who helps on the field and off, a guy that does not get in trouble,” says Godwin. “On the field, I’m a very dependable guy, sure handed and a great route runner.”

You can move a little, too. (At the NFL combine, he ran a 4.55 40.)

“Straight ahead I’m probably not the fastest,” says Godwin. “But in my routes, I’m one of the fastest runners.”

I like the guy. I thank him for his time and wish him luck.

“Thank you, sir,” Godwin says.

Gerald McCoy can only make Panthers better

When you have a team, there are times in which you get to sit back and smile. If your team is the Carolina Panthers, this week is one of them.

The Panthers signed defensive tackle Gerald McCoy Monday to a one-year, incentive-laden, reasonable contract. The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens also recruited him, and Baltimore allegedly offered more.

The Panthers get a 31-year-old who has, since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted him out of Oklahoma with the third pick in the 2010 draft, been one of the best at his position. He’s tough and disruptive, and he can move.

Envision him next to defensive tackle Kawann Short in the 4-3. Because of the publicity McCoy generates, we think of him as an older veteran. But he’s the same age as Carolina defensive end Mario Addison, and he’s only one year older than Short.

Short plus McCoy equals an unprecedented push, for Carolina, up the middle. Quarterbacks like to slide toward the line as blockers protect them from the outside rush. McCoy will make that a challenge.

The Browns and Ravens, who feature very good second-year quarterbacks, are considered up and coming. The Panthers, who finished 7-9 last season after quarterback Cam Newton injured his shoulder, usually aren’t considered.

Yet Carolina won the McCoy sweepstakes. Team leaders took him to lunch during his visit to Charlotte, and they smartly picked a vegan restaurant. McCoy is a vegan. At 300 pounds, he is considered one of the world’s 10 largest vegans.

Along with vegetables, Charlotte was equipped with two geographical advantages. McCoy grew up in Oklahoma City, and played collegiately in Norman, Okla. He doesn’t know north.

Also, Carolina plays in the NFC South with Tampa Bay, McCoy’s former employer. Neither Cleveland nor Baltimore play the Bucs this season.

McCoy has a reputation for being great in the locker room and a star in the community.

Yet the Bucs got rid of him the way smokers get rid of a cigarette. Son, you’ve been tossed.

They even gave McCoy’s jersey, No. 93, to his replacement, Ndamukong Suh. Suh wore 90 his first five seasons, but switched to 93 when he left the Detroit Lions for the Miami Dolphins.

They have a connection, McCoy and Suh. Detroit chose Suh, out of Nebraska, with the No. 2 pick in the 2010 draft, one pick in front of McCoy. At the time, Oklahoma and Nebraska shared a conference and, briefly for Nebraska, national football relevance.

Cynics will contend that fans of the Panthers are celebrating as if they won a Super Bowl.

But when you devote passion, and often money, to a team, don’t you get to celebrate when it does something exciting and potentially very good?

Carolina’s march through the 2018 felt like a slog, feet encased in mud, getting nowhere while the competition was moving past

At the very least, the Panthers are back on solid ground.

Keep NFL’s regular season at 16 games, please

We can all agree, even if it means agreeing with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, that four preseason games are too many. Strip away the pretense, and preseason means exhibition.

Multiple exhibitions once were necessary. But between the various camps and off-season conditioning programs, any general manager or coach who needs four exhibitions to determine who can play and who can’t should be canned.

So, yes, cut the exhibition season from four games to two. We’re with you, Roger.

But do it without stretching the regular season to 18 games. Sixteen is a great number, dividing the schedule neatly into four increments.

Problem is, Goodell works for the owners, and owners aren’t going to voluntarily give up two lucrative exhibitions. The Washington Post reported that some owners are proponents of the longer schedule.

Eighteen games is excessive. Despite advances in equipment, helmets especially, and despite a change in the head-first tackling culture that once pervaded football, it remains a violent game, and where there is violence there are injuries

Stars will be hurt. Remember when the Arizona Cardinals came to Charlotte in 2015 for a playoff game against the Carolina Panthers, and the Cardinals were down to about their seventh string quarterback? The more games you play, the more likely you are to be injured.

Fans will see a lesser product.

Also, two extra weeks will hurt ratings. We have Monday night football and Sunday night football and Thursday night football. The more televised football the league offers, the less compelled we feel to watch it.

But what if you miss something?

You can catch it next week or the week after that or in the 17th or 18th game.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2020 season, and a longer season will almost certainly be proposed.

An alternative to the longer regular-season schedule would be an expanded playoff schedule. Twelve of the league’s 32 teams now make the playoffs. Under the expanded playoff model, an addition team from each conference, or 14 teams, would qualify.

I like that format better than the 18-game idea. But I also like the idea that if you make the playoffs, you did something. The more teams that make the playoffs, the more the regular season is diluted.

To cut the preseason in half, without adding games, owners would have to say: “Look, we’re making enormous money, turning a huge profit and we own the NFL Network. So, sure, we can afford to give up a couple practice-game paydays. If it’s good for the game, it’s good for us.”

You can file that quote under: “Words that have never been spoken.”

I’d rather have a 16-game regular season and four exhibitions than an 18-game regular season and two exhibitions. Stars and starters make token appearances in most exhibitions, and are reasonably protected.

Will players submit to a longer season? They were adamant during the last CBA negotiations that they would not play 18 games.

That’s smart. Maybe the owners in favor of the expanded schedule should wear helmets.

Hans Talks: Fan filming Cam shouldn’t an issue

I very much like and respect Ron Rivera. One of my favorite people in sports. But he’s wrong to criticize the fan who took video of Cam Newton throwing a football during a closed practice. Newton has yet to throw a regulation football in front of the media. The practice was closed to us, too.

The Panthers practice behind a fence with a piece of cloth that confers some privacy. They’ve undergone three sessions of OTAs. If the fan with the camera stood on a public sidewalk and filmed Newton, that’s all right.

Rivera says the practices are private. But the onus is on the team to make them so.

Look. If you work hard enough, there are ways to find things out. Somebody could send a drone above the practice field and film Kyle Allen throwing an 8-yard pass over the middle to tight end Cole Hunt. Pictures at 11.

If I saw Newton through a fence throwing a forward pass, I would neither film nor photograph him. I wouldn’t do it even though the story is big because anything Newton does that implies his right shoulder is OK is big.

I wouldn’t film him because I don’t like the paparazzi angle and because I’d feel stupid defending it.

Her: “What did you do today?”

Me: “Um, took covert video of Cam Newton throwing a football.”

Her: “If you’re that hard up for something to do, maybe you should see if the Observer will take you back full-time. Or clean the kitchen.”

And if in a weak moment I did take secret film of the Newton, I’d at least wear a trench coat and, like a guy on Twitter, make up a name.

“Tom, what are doing with that camera on the sidewalk outside the practice field?

“I’m not Tom. I’m Hans.”

I suspect the Panthers will do something to make filming more difficult, if not impossible. Defensive tackle Dontari Poe weighs 346 pounds. If he asks you to stop filming, what are you going to say?

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen