Hornets win big on draft night with James Bouknight, Kai Jones, Scottie Lewis, JT Thor, and Mason Plumlee

By Chase Whitney

July 30, 2021

Photo: Corey Sipkin / AP

In what was perhaps the most eventful draft day in post-relocation Charlotte Hornets history, general manager Mitch Kupchak and his staff went into the night with three picks and came out with four, plus Detroit Pistons center Mason Plumlee.

At 7:16 p.m. EST, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Hornets were trading the 57th pick in Thursday night’s draft for Plumlee and the 37th pick in a salary dump for Detroit. Plumlee is quite a serviceable center (he actually recorded two triple-doubles last year) at a price of just $16.6 million over the next two seasons.

A mere two hours later, the Hornets were on the clock at No. 11 and much to the surprise of Kupchak, Charlotte was able to nab Connecticut guard James Bouknight.

“He did come down to us a little bit further than I thought he would.  We got a player we felt we rated much higher. Coincidentally, he does fill a need in the backcourt…we really wanted to pick the best available talent,” Kupchak said in the Hornets draft press conference. 

Bouknight is an explosive athlete and smart cutter with the potential to grow into a three-level shot creator if he can raise his 3-point shooting efficiency. The 2020-21 All-Big East selection averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 steals per game despite missing over a month due to a surgically repaired elbow, leading the Huskies to a seven seed in the NCAA Tournament. He was projected to go as high as sixth overall to the Thunder, but the Hornets were able to end his slide and pair his high-flying athleticism and aggressive style with LaMelo Ball.

It wasn’t long after Kupchak stood up from his post-lottery pick presser before Charlotte was back on the clock; the Hornets sent a protected future first-round pick to the Knicks for the right to select Texas big Kai Jones with the 19th overall pick.

Jones won 2020-21 Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore, scoring 8.8 points and grabbing 4.8 rebounds per game. A likely candidate for road trips to Greensboro during his rookie season, Jones began playing organized basketball in the Bahamas at age 15 after hitting a growth spurt but has quickly developed intriguing floor-spacing and rim protection ability thanks in part to his elite speed and verticality. He’s tall and skinny (6’11.5” in shoes and 221 pounds) and his basketball instincts haven’t quite caught up to his body yet, but Jones is a hard worker and projects as a perfect running mate for Ball if he pans out.

With the 37th pick, acquired a few hours prior in the Plumlee trade, the Hornets selected JT Thor. The Alaska native was not initially expected to be a one-and-done prospect, but flashes of off-ball movement shooting and defensive versatility at 6’9” during his lone season at Auburn led to him being one of the hottest pre-draft risers. Thor blocked 1.4 shots playing 23 minutes per game and six three-pointers in a 24-point performance against Kentucky– he should also spend most of his time in Greensboro as a rookie, but his ceiling is higher than a normal 37th pick.

Scottie Lewis was taken with Charlotte’s final pick of the evening at No. 56. A former McDonald’s All-American, he struggled throughout two seasons at Florida but could play a role similar to Cody Martin if he improves his decision-making on offense.

In selecting Bouknight, Jones and Thor, Charlotte is betting on it’s player development staff to continue to get the best out of the players they bring in the building. Bouknight should have an opportunity to contribute as a rookie with his knack for finding open space off-ball and willingness to attack and finish around bigger bodies at the rim, but even he has a ways to go in terms of playmaking and shooting development. Jones, and especially Thor, could spend the majority if not the entirety of the season with the Swarm to develop both physically and on the court. In no way is this a bad thing, it just means the organization and fans will have to be patient.

Next up: free agency. The Bouknight and Jones selections could spell the end of Malik Monk and Cody Zeller’s respective tenures in purple and teal simply because the large cap hold on each of their contracts could prevent the Hornets from making further roster adjustments. Even with Plumlee in the fold, expect Charlotte to be a player in the market for a starting center like Richaun Holmes or Myles Turner. They currently have about $12 million in expected cap space after the Plumlee trade, though that number can change depending on the contract situations of Graham and Monk, who are restricted free agents. 

Here’s a look at the Hornets group play schedule for the NBA Summer League 2021:

Sunday, August 8
Cox Pavilion
6 p.m. – Portland vs. Charlotte (NBA TV)

Monday, August 9
Thomas & Mack Center
6 p.m. – Charlotte vs. Sacramento (NBA TV)

Thursday, August 12
Cox Pavilion
3 p.m. – San Antonio vs. Charlotte (ESPNU)

Saturday, August 14
Cox Pavilion
7 p.m. – Charlotte vs. Toronto (NBA TV)

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