Hornets’ draft was underwhelming, but Williams could be a find

Duke's Mark Williams (15) celebrates after scoring against NC State in January.  The Charlotte Hornets picked Williams 15th overall Thursday night in the NBA draft.

Duke’s Mark Williams (15) celebrates after scoring against NC State in January. The Charlotte Hornets picked Williams 15th overall Thursday night in the NBA draft.

ehyman@newsobserver.com

I don’t totally hate the Charlotte Hornets’ 2022 NBA draft, because to do so would be selling short former Duke center Mark Williams. If the Hornets were actually going to make a pick at number 13 or 15 Thursday night — although I’d hoped they’d trade both of them away for a veteran big man — then Williams was the correct choice.

But no one in their right mind could love the Hornets’ 2022 NBA draft, either. They made one of their two first-round picks disappear — the one that was actually inside the lottery at No. 13. And what did they get for it?

Not enough.

A future first-round pick in 2023 that may be in the 20s, and a bunch of second-round picks that aren’t worth that much.

No bad Hornets contract got unloaded. No veteran big man parachuted from the sky into Charlotte. It was a thoroughly underwhelming trade, one that made many Hornets fans want to scream: “Is that all there is? Really?”

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak would explain later that the team didn’t really want to make two picks at 13 and 15, which sounded a little far-fetched. Who doesn’t want a lot of young talent?

Kupchak’s logic was this is a team ready to “make a jump” and could make the playoffs and win a series next year and wasn’t in blow-it-all-up-and-rebuild-again mode, and that a team like that didn’t have room for too many first- or second-year players anywhere but at the end of the bench.

And, Kupchak said, the deal he took was the best one out there.

“You can only deal with what transpires during the market,” Kupchak said about 1 am Friday, after his post-draft press conference had bled into the wee hours. “I mean, even though you want more, if it’s not there, it’s not there…. That was the best deal we could have got.”

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Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak discusses the teams two first round draft picks in the NBA draft on Thursday, June 23, 2022 at Spectrum Center in Charlotte, NC. The Hornets selected Jalen Duren with the 13th pick and Mark Williams with the 15th pick. The team then traded the 13th pick Jalen Duren for multiple future draft picks. JEFF SINER jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Kupchak would have liked to have seen James Bouknight, Kai Jones and JT Thor play more in their first year under recently-fired head coach James Borrego, so it stands to reason he wants them more involved in their second year with whoever the new coach may be (and expect that to be announced soon).

As far as adding two more first-round picks to that mix, Kupchak didn’t think it really made sense on a team that already has a bunch of veteran starters — even though injuries could have made the young group shrink to a more manageable size . Instead, he decided to flip one or both of those picks, depending on which deal he thought was best.

Ultimately, it was the 13th pick that left the building. The Hornets technically picked former Memphis center Jalen Duren, and then quickly traded him away for a slew of future choices (Denver’s 2023 first-round pick and four second-round picks).

Kupchak has an eye for second-round picks, dating back to his time running the Los Angeles Lakers.

But seriously? That’s all?

Denver was a 48-win team last year, and if the Nuggets stay around that level next season, that pick won’t be any better than 20th.

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Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens (5) was the Charlotte Hornets’ second-round pick Thursday night. He will likely spend a good deal of time developing in the G League in his first season. Rebecca S. Gratz AP

I’m not hot on that part. The Hornets didn’t get enough.

I am bullish on Williams, though, who measures 7-foot-2 in shoes and has a standing reach of 9-foot-9. That means he’s three inches from touching the rim before he jumps. He’s going to need to be able to hit a 15-footer in the NBA and he’s got to get stronger to survive the punishment inside. But at the beginning of his career just being able to protect the rim, dunk some LaMelo Ball alley oops and hit a few free throws will be a fine contribution.

As Williams said after the draft, Melo should make his life easier on the offensive end and he should make Melo’s life easier on the defensive end. Williams was the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year last season, averaging 2.8 blocks per game, and he was the only player in the country to shoot better than 70% from both the floor and the free-throw line. He’s a rotation player, and he should move behind Mason Plumlee but ahead of Jones in terms of minutes by January.

But if Plumlee shoots 39.2% from the free-throw line again, you could see Williams playing an important fourth-quarter minutes almost immediately.

In the second round, the Hornets traded up from No. 45 to No. 40 — using one of the four second-round picks they just acquired — and took Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard originally from Pendleton, SC McGowens averaged 17 points per game for a bad Nebraska team that went 10-22 . He’s slender and will need to add strength. He will likely be a two-way player to start out, getting a steady diet of the G League.

Bottom line: the Hornets came out with half a loaf of bread in this draft.

They won’t go completely hungry. But this also wasn’t the meal that anybody was dreaming of before the draft began.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 18 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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