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Pressure is on: In 5th draft as Hornets GM, time for Rich Cho to get it right

General manager Rich Cho and the Charlotte Hornets own the No. 9 pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft.
General manager Rich Cho and the Charlotte Hornets own the No. 9 pick in Thursday night’s NBA draft. AP

To suggest that the Charlotte Hornets have to find a star Thursday with the ninth pick in the NBA draft is absurd.

But this isn’t: They can’t waste another pick.

The pressure on general manager Rich Cho is enormous, or ought to be. Cho was fired by Portland in 2011, and three weeks later the Charlotte Bobcats hired him. I was thrilled. Cho was not a friend of owner Michael Jordan’s, and his hiring acknowledged that the Bobcats needed to reach outside for help.

But talent acquisition is the weakest facet of this franchise. In Jordan the Hornets have an owner who is willing to spend and has the pull to get Charlotte an NBA All-Star Game. In president and chief operating officer Fred Whitfield they have one of the best businessmen in the sport. In Steve Clifford they have a coach who, because of a paucity of talent, has to create rotations with duct tape and hope. Players respect him enormously.

Cho is the hierarchy’s flaw. Cold but true: If he continues to miss, fans won’t miss him when Charlotte finds a new general manager.

Before I get to the player I’d like to see the Hornets take Thursday, I’d like to look back at the players they’ve selected in the first round since 2011.

Last year the Hornets invested first-round picks on power forward Noah Vonleh (No. 9) and shooting guard P.J. Hairston (No. 26).

Vonleh, 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, will not turn 20 until August. He’s a superior athlete with considerable potential. But we have no idea about his instincts for the game. Is he an athlete or a player?

Hairston spent the season going one-on-one against life. Life won.

In 2013, Charlotte selected power forward Cody Zeller with the draft’s fourth pick. Zeller is a 7-footer and he had the numbers Cho loves; he ran faster and jumped higher than the highly regarded big men who came out in the draft. What we’ve seen in Zeller’s two seasons (the latter cut short by injury): not much.

In 2012, Charlotte took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with the draft’s second pick. Many of you don’t want to hear this, but MKG can play. He’ll never average 20 points. But he’s relentless, and every season he has improved every facet of his game. You want him in your locker room and on your roster. In related news, the No. 2 pick in the draft should be pretty good.

In 2011, Cho’s first draft, the Bobcats took power forward Bismack Biyombo with the seventh pick and point guard Kemba Walker with the ninth. If Walker refines his jump shot, he’s a potential All-Star. Biyombo is a nice guy.

My unsolicited advice Thursday is to emphasize instinct over analytics. If you’re going to draft a guy who can run and jump, try to ensure he can play.

If Charlotte trades up, I love Mario Hezonja, a 6-7 wing from Croatia. He can get his shot and make his shot. He’s creative and instinctive and really good.

If the Hornets trade down and parlay their pick into two later (but not much later) first-round picks, a candidate who will have a long and successful career is Jerian Grant, the 6-4 hybrid guard from Notre Dame.

Kentucky guard Devin Booker, at 18 the youngest player in the draft, has become everybody’s favorite. The Hornets need a shooter, and Booker’s release is so consistent and smooth that every shot he puts up looks as if it will go in. However, he’s not a great ball-handler and he’s not an explosive athlete. But he’s 6-6 and would fit nicely between Walker and Kidd-Gilchrist.

There are other candidates: Kentucky’s Willie Cauley-Stein, a strong safety of a big man; Myles Turner, an intriguing big man from Texas; and dark horse Kelly Oubre, a 6-7 wing from Kansas.

If I make the pick, I work to move up and take Hezonja. When that fails, I look to move down. When that fails, I take Cauley-Stein.

I get to fail.

Cho does not.

Sorensen: 704-358-5119; tsorensen@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @tomsorensen

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