Tom Sorensen

Tom Talks: Hornets took safe -- and uninspired -- route in NBA draft

The Charlotte Hornets drafted Kentucky's P.J. Washington with the 12th pick in the recent NBA draft.
The Charlotte Hornets drafted Kentucky's P.J. Washington with the 12th pick in the recent NBA draft. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com


II were going to define the Charlotte Hornets’ fan base in one word, the word would not be angry or frustrated. The word would be exasperated. Fans are exasperated with their team, and they should be.

The last two weeks were especially important for the Hornets. The team failed them. The team failed at last week’s NBA draft, and it failed when asked about the luxury tax.

The luxury tax is a surcharge. If your payroll exceeds a number, you’re taxed. The luxury tax was enacted to prevent teams in major markets, who presumably make more money than mid-market brethren such as Charlotte, from collecting talent. Pay too much to players and you pay the man. Maybe the system works. Many big market teams, among them the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks, and Chicago Bulls, failed to make the playoffs last season, and only Houston advanced past the first round.

Michael Jordan, who owns the Hornets, has never paid a luxury tax, and before the draft Charlotte general manager Mitch Kupchak said this about paying one:

“I would not anticipate that is something we would look to do.”

I get it. The Hornets are not on the cusp of greatness, and have missed the playoffs three straight seasons. Perhaps they can dump one of their big contracts and hire a moderately priced free agent.

If the Hornets sign Kemba Walker, their star guard and face of the franchise, if they give him even close to the max contract they are able (up to five seasons, $221 million), the salary cap will severely limit the talent they can acquire to pack around him.

If there was a good time to exceed the luxury tax, this is such a time.

The Hornets’ draft was safe and solid and stolid, a testament to business as usual. Unless you’re a fan of Kentucky, Nevada or San Diego State, their three picks made nobody jump and shout.

Fans looked for a sign that the team’s leaders understood how desperate these times are. A team doesn’t owe fans victories. But it owes fans hope.

Stay with us; we’ll get there.

Charlotte’s decision-makers steadfastly chose not to gamble. They invested their first pick, No. 12 overall, on Kentucky forward P.J. .Washington. Washington is solid. He’ll grab some rebounds, score some points, make some passes and play some defense. And when NBA fans talk about the league’s young stars, they won’t talk about him.

Who would I have taken? I would have considered Rui Hachimura out of Gonzaga, who is the same size, 6-feet-8 and about 230 pounds, that Washington is. But the Washington Wizards took him at No. 9. Hachimura grew up in Japan, came to the game late and has made up time. He is unlikely to be good immediately. But his potential is enormous.

The Hornets have selected only one Gonzaga player in franchise history. They drafted Adam Morrison with the third pick in 2006 and, as a result, might never take another Gonzaga player.

I would have considered Hachimura but, after considerable debate, selected Nassir Little of North Carolina.

For the record, I did not attend North Carolina, have no connection to the school or basketball program, and don’t own Tar Heel jammies.

Little is 6-6, and flawed. But he is such a good athlete, and so fearless, that when he has the ball he expects good things to happen. They did in high school. They didn’t, not all the time, in the ACC. Also, he’s not a natural shooter.

But Little doesn’t turn 20 until February. He can, and I believe will, become the player we saw glimpses of at North Carolina and on the high school all-star circuit. He stumbled all the way to No. 25 in the draft, and the Portland Trail Blazers were the beneficiaries. He can learn to harness his great athleticism and, as Walker has demonstrated, develop his shooting. At his best, he is way beyond solid.

Washington had a much better sophomore season than Little did a freshman season. Little is riskier, the rewards he brings considerably greater. Why not at least think big? The Hornets drafted a good, solid player a year ago in Miles Bridges. How many do you want?

This pick was uninspired.

In the second round, Charlotte took Cody Martin with the 36th pick and Jalen McDaniels with the 52nd. Martin, from Mocksville and Nevada, brings combo guard skills. McDaniels, from San Diego State, brings baggage.

Available at No. 36 was Bol Bol, a 7-foot center. Bol comes with undeniable talent, and numerous questions about his game. The Miami Heat took him 44th, and traded him to the Denver Nuggets.

Bol, coming off a severe foot injury, never a good injury for a big man, is a risk. But he has the be the potential to, a few seasons from now, be one of those players about whom people say, “How did this guy last until the second round?”

There are steals in every draft. They play for teams other than Charlotte.

Charlotte, MLS a perfect fit

I don’t know soccer. But I know Charlotte. I know the market. And I know – I mean, know – that a Major League Soccer team would succeed in our city.

We collect new residents. If you don’t see them, you see the apartment buildings in which they live and the breweries in which they drink. If Charlotte supported the MLS the way it supports breweries, we’d be among the league leaders in attendance.

New residents usually bring sports allegiances with them. Some eventually convert, latching onto the NFL’s Carolina Panthers or NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. But some don’t. Grow up with a team, maybe your dad’s team, maybe a team whose games you watched at a stadium or arena as a child. and your relationship with that team doesn’t end when you cross into North Carolina, South Carolina or Mecklenburg County.

But MLS is, compared to other sports, new, and your loyalty to another MLS team might not be entrenched. I absolutely believe that many Charlotte newcomers would love to have an opportunity to make a team their own.

MLS is adding two teams this summer, Sacramento and St. Louis. That will give it 29, same as the NHL. The NHL is adding a 30th team, Seattle. MLS will, too.

I was in Atlanta’s Virginia Highland neighborhood, and so many Atlanta United flags hung from the houses that I stopped counting. There were more United flags than flags for the Atlanta Falcons, Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks or even the University of Georgia.

United joined MLS in 2017, and won the championship last season.

Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons, also owns United, and they play in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the Falcons play.

David Tepper, who owns the Carolina Panthers, has expressed interest in an MLS team.

The beauty of such a team is the freedom it would confer to newcomers as well as long-time residents. There’d be no path to follow, nothing entrenched. And newcomers who want a stake in Charlotte that supersedes a stool at the brewery and a favored IPA could make the team theirs.

The timing is ideal. A grassroots movement to attract an MLS team has been simmering for years. If Tepper commits to MLS, MLS should commit to Tepper, and to Charlotte.

Decision time nearing for Kemba

I’d love to know what the free agent process is like for Kemba Walker. Is it flattering to be pursued by teams such as the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks? Is Walker serious about leaving the Hornets even though he admittedly likes living in Charlotte? What would Walker give to play for a team capable of going deep into the playoffs without having to leave his adopted town?

We’ll know soon what he decides. NBA free agents such as Walker are eligible to begin talking to other teams Sunday at 6 p.m., and to sign six days later on July 6.

What would you do if you were Walker?

Walker is 29, and has played eight seasons for the Hornets, eight seasons in the NBA. When he came to town as a first-round pick out of Connecticut, he was quiet, and not much of a shooter. He isn’t a loud leader such as guard Tony Parker could be for Charlotte last season. But Walker leads.

Here’s how greatly his shot has improved. When he shoots from distance, you’re surprised when it doesn’t go in.

The most telling fact about Walker’s eight seasons with Charlotte is that he has improved in every one of them. To sustain that trajectory, to have a fine season and then a better one, is a testament to effort. I asked Hornets coach James Borrego about that trajectory last season, and he praised Walker’s work effort, intelligence and passion to improve.

But if you work as hard as Walker has, are you content to spend every season fighting for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings? Do you patiently wait for the Hornets to escape their lower-middle class status that feels as permanent as a tattoo?

In Walker’s eight seasons, this is where the Hornets have finished in the 15-team Eastern Conference: Sixth, seventh, ninth, tenth, 11th, 11th, 14th and 15th.

In 2013-14, the seventh-seeded Hornets were swept in the playoffs by the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh Miami Heat.

In 2015-16, the sixth-seeded Hornets lost to Miami in seven games.

If I’m Walker, and I find a city I love, and my family loves, leaving would be a challenge.

If I’m Walker, and every season I’m better than the previous, I want my team to improve with me. I want to win while I’m in my prime.

At about six-feet and a lean 185 pounds, Walker understands that his prime will endure another, what, four years? As he moves into his mid-thirties, he’ll still have value, still be able to shoot and pass.

But those herky-jerky moves, where he has the ball and commits to going right, everybody knows he’s going right, his defender knows he’s going right, the fans know he’s going right, and then goes left, will be rarer. That remarkable quickness will cease to be as remarkable.

Walker has absolute power over his future, more than he ever has or ever will. Starting Sunday, he will be courted.

As exhilarating as that should be, the process would be so much easier if he believed the Hornets have or will put enough talent around him to win.

I wrote about the Hornets’ draft earlier in this newsletter. Maybe they had a draft plan I overlooked. Maybe the plan was to go to Walker and say: “Did you see our draft? Now we really need you.”

Dancin’ in New Orleans

New Orleans is Drew Brees’ town. Newcomers might borrow it for a week or a weekend, but the city belongs to him.

This week, the latest competition arrived. Zion Williamson, whom the New Orleans Pelicans selected with the top pick in the NBA draft, came to town. As Williamson’s name was called in Brooklyn, New Orleans fans danced in the streets and screamed and laughed as confetti fell and a huge banner with Williamson’s first name was unfurled.

Brees, the fine New Orleans Saints quarterback, was willing to share.

He signed a jersey: “Welcome to the family. Let’s dance,” put the jersey in a frame behind glass, and had it presented to Williamson.

About dance: At the end of Williamson’s first post-draft interview in Brookyln, site of the draft, he was asked if he had anything to say to New Orleans.

“Let’s dance,” Williamson said. “Let’s dance.”

Some have likened passing of the jersey to Williamson with passing the torch. They’re wrong. The NFL is a clear No. 1 in New Orleans and, even with Williamson playing for the Pelicans, will remain No. 1. Go to a game at the Superdome, and you’ll see, although noon (CST) kickoffs come too early.

The last time a No. 1 NBA pick generated so much excitement was in 2003, when the Cleveland Cavaliers selected LeBron James.

There also was a roar when in 2012, the Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis. The roar did not come from Charlotte. Despite a legendarily bad season, the Hornets received the second pick, New Orleans the first. (James and Davis will soon be Los Angeles Lakers’ teammates.)

More typical than the LeBron response or Williamson response or Davis response is the response last year. Who went No. 1 in the 2018 NBA draft? You remember, right?

Deandre Ayton, a 7-1 center, did. The Phoenix Suns drafted Ayton, a local who played one college season 113 miles away at Arizona.

Despite Ayton, Phoenix finished 27th in attendance last season. (The Pelicans finished 25th. Charlotte finished 23rd.)

We didn’t know Ayton the way we know Williamson. Williamson is the player NBA players talk about. He’s 6-7 and 285 pounds, and leaps with the ease and grace of a small man and the power of a big one. We rate his dunks while we wonder how a man so big can get up so high.

Yet, as mesmerizing as his dunks are, he does other things often and well. He finished in the top five in seven ACC categories: points, field goal percentage, offensive rebounds, steals, rebounds, double-doubles and blocked shots.

Next season, Williamson might make as many national television appearances as Duke. And when he comes to Spectrum Center, we’ll be there.

Williamson was filmed as he was shown the jersey from Brees, and he reacted like a kid. Since he won’t turn 19 until next week, he’s entitled.

He read the inscription, finishing with “Let’s dance.”

He laughed, blown away by the gift and the respect it conferred.

“Let’s dance,” Williamson said. “I’m gonna make that global.”

Short takes: It’s summertime, football can wait

I hear people say that they can’t wait until football starts. I’m not one of them. Of course, I love the NFL. But I love summer more. Summer is vacation and adventures, family and friends, the ocean or the lake, the Southeast or Midwest or wherever we find ourselves. There’s no better time than summer. Enjoy yours…

Andre Iguodala of the Golden State Warriors says that players pick up their phones at halftime of games. They can find out what’s being said about them, monitor the feedback and make their agents happy by figuring out how to get more. See how much attention Player A gets? Give the man an endorsement. And Iguodala is not frivolous. He plays tough defense. He works.

I know that Bill Russell and Jerry West didn’t have cell phones when they played, and I know that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson didn’t. Michael Jordan could have had one when he retired in 1999, but can you imagine him talking on it between halves.

“Coach, I’m busy, I’ll get back to you. Sorry, Tiger. What were you saying?”…

The Hornets held their annual Day of Service Wednesday. Employees worked with six local non-profits. It’s a nice touch. They’ve committed to work with the community on a variety of efforts, among them food drives, and with Second Harvest. What I like: It’s not just their money they offer. It’s their time…

Cam Newton offered a man $1,500 to trade seats with him on a 10-hour Paris to Dallas flight. Most of us would have said, “Yes!” The man said no. I can think of three reasons.

(1) He’s tall and needed the leg room. (2) He’s rich and would not consider a lesser seat. (3) He’s a fan of the Atlanta Falcons.

I think $1,500 is a nice boost. But for some, it’s spare change. Yet most of the multi-millionaires I know are not frivolous with money. Some see profit as the ultimate victory, an absence of profit as the ultimate loss. I wonder what, in those circumstances, they would have done…

ESPN’s Bob Ley will retire at the end of the month. Ley, 64, joined ESPN on Sept. 9, 1979, the network’s third day of operation. I remember seeing ESPN in a concierge lounge somewhere, and Triangle area TV guys there criticizing the garage sale equipment ESPN appeared to use. There are reasons to criticize ESPN, but their equipment is not one of them.

Ley hosted Outside the Lines, ESPN’s investigative show, and he was good, fair, tough, smooth. I did the show twice, and Ley had a gift for moving it along.

After 40 years with the network, Ley is moving along. Good luck

Tom Sorensen is a retired Observer sports columnist.


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