Charlotte Hornets Draft Recap: Kupchak bets on the future again bringing in three highly rated potential NBA prospects

By Chase Whitney

June 23, 2023

Photo: John Minchillo / AP

Well, the mainstream media and draft analysts were right all along. With the second pick in the 2023 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets selected Brandon Miller, forward out of Alabama.

Ever since the draft lottery concluded last month, the majority of mock drafts pegged Miller to the Hornets with the second pick, although in the past year G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson was widely regarded as the clear-cut second fiddle to Victor Wembanyama. After a productive season at Alabama, and considering LaMelo Ball’s position as a true point guard, the Hornets opted to pair a tall, shooting wing with their franchise cornerstone playmaker.

In the end, the Hornets landed a 20-year-old 6-foot-9 sharpshooter with deep range, defensive versatility, and the ability to operate as a secondary playmaker, running pick-and-roll sets with his shifty handle and impressive court vision. Provided Miller’s career pans out in the way many expect it to, he’s going to be a seamless long-term fit between Ball and Mark Williams.

General manager Mitch Kupchak wasn’t done there, though. In the Kupchak era, the Hornets have snagged more than a handful of rotation-level players from the later portions of the draft. This year, armed with four late picks (27, 34, 39, 41) Kupchak worked the phones, got in on a trade and ultimately left the night with four rookies bound for the Queen City.

The 27th pick was widely expected to be used as a trade piece, but the Hornets stayed put and selected Nick Smith Jr., a guard out of Arkansas with the pick. Smith was a consensus top-5 recruit coming out of North Little Rock High School (No. 1 for 247Sports and No. 3 for ESPN), but struggled at times during his one-and-done season with the Razorbacks due to a nagging knee injury. He entered the 2022-23 season expected to be drafted inside the top-10, but fell to the 27th pick as a result. An electric scorer in the paint with supreme finishing touch, playmaking creativity, a high defensive ceiling, and floor-spacing potential, Smith is almost a guarantee to outplay his draft slot. An excellent value pick for Kupchak and company.

Following the Smith pick, it was evident a possible trade would be coming, and surely enough, it did. The Hornets packaged the 34th and 39th picks in the draft to move up to No. 31 which was originally owned by Detroit, but had since been acquired by Boston. The Hornets consolidated two picks into James Nnaji, a Nigerian center for Barcelona of Spain’s Liga ACB and the EuroLeague. 

As a prospect, Nnaji profiled similarly to a young Bismack Biyombo, but he’s bigger than Biz at 6’11” with a 7’7” wingspan, and has already played two seasons in the toughest professional league in the world behind the NBA. There’s untapped offensive potential in the 18-year-old Nnaji’s game, and he’s already an effective drop coverage defender, impactful rim protector, and powerful lob target. Whether or not he spends another year overseas before making the Hornets roster remains to be seen, but Nnaji would add another layer of interior defense, finishing and toughness to Charlotte’s center rotation.

The last, but certainly not the least pick of the night was Amari Bailey, a guard out of UCLA. Bailey is another top high school recruit, a consensus five-star that ranked fifth in ESPN’s recruiting database prior to his one-and-done year in Westwood. He’s well acquainted with the limelight already, having been featured in Lifetime’s Bringing Up Ballers reality series before becoming a renowned high school player at Sierra Canyon in Los Angeles. The 19-year-old combo guard has a tight handle, and is a willing passer, playing with an edge defensively. There’s a chance Bailey earns a guaranteed roster spot, but as the 41st pick, it’s more likely he lands on a Two-Way deal to start the 2023-24 season. 

Since the draft ended, the Hornets have added forward Nathan Mensah out of San Diego State and guard Leaky Black out of North Carolina as undrafted free agents. Black will occupy one of the three Two-Way slots next season and Mensah is either an Exhibit 10 signing or received a Summer League invite. There will be a couple more undrafted pieces signed over the next couple days to fill up those Two-Way and Exhibit 10 contracts as the Hornets begin to assemble a roster for Summer League.

The Hornets came out of the 2023 NBA Draft with three of the top nine recruits in the high school class of 2022. As we’ve seen time and again over the last few years, Kupchak and his staff are glad to bet on the development staff churning out impact players. With eight players on the current roster set to enter the 2023-24 season on a rookie-scale contract, it seems like they’ve placed that bet once again with this promising young class. 

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