Charlotte Hornets Free Agency Recap: Kelly Oubre Jr., Ish Smith, and more

 By Chase Whitney

August 11, 2021

Photo: Kathy Willens / AP

Hornets fans were probably expecting some activity when free agency opened at 6:00 p.m. EST on August 2 after Mitch Kupchak had his hands all over the 2021 draft just a few days prior. It took a little bit of time, but Charlotte eventually joined the game of musical chairs that is NBA free agency.

Lonzo Ball has seemingly landed in Chicago and Richaun Holmes, a long-time free agency target among Hornets fans, returned to Sacramento at a salary that many thought Charlotte could’ve matched or topped. The Hornets may have missed the “biggest name” and “best available” in free agency, but they were able to fill out the roster while maintaining flexibility for years to come. Let’s run down the events.

Farewell, Malik and Cody 

Malik Monk and Cody Zeller both left the Queen City after their cap holds were renounced. Monk joined the Los Angeles Lakers on a one-year minimum contract, with Zeller doing the same in Portland. Both former Hornets should be key contributors on teams with a chance to make a run in the Western Conference playoffs.

Homecoming for Ish Smith 

The Hornets got on the board Tuesday evening when Ish Smith agreed to a two-year, $9 million deal with a team option for the second season. Smith, a Charlotte native and Wake Forest alum, is coming off a solid season with the Washington Wizards; he put up 6.7 points and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 36.7 percent from 3-point land in 44 games played, with all but one coming as a reserve. The speedy 33-year-old point guard gets in the paint with ease as a creative finisher and reliable decision-maker that should help steady the second unit in Graham and Monk’s absence. In signing with the Hornets, Smith will play for his 12th team in his career, tying an NBA record.

It’s been real, Devonte’

It took a little while for the details to be ironed out after the deal was originally agreed upon, but the Hornets executed a sign-and-trade deal sending Devonte’ Graham to the New Orleans Pelicans in a three-team deal that netted Charlotte Wes Iwundu and a 2022 lottery-protected first-rounder via New Orleans that converts to two second-rounders in 2022 and 2024 if the Pelicans make the playoffs this upcoming season.

Graham heads to New Orleans on a four-year, $47 million contract with only partial guarantees in the fourth year. Graham will start for the Pelicans, something he was no longer able to do with LaMelo Ball in the fold in Charlotte. His floor-spacing, deep pull-up shooting range and playmaking will be sorely missed in the Hornets’ system, and it always hurts seeing a homegrown talent leave. In a vacuum, though, Kupchak got good value for a player he didn’t plan on re-signing anyway; rarely do teams fetch first-round picks in return for restricted free agents.

Lauri Markkanen? 

For a few hours over the weekend, Lauri Markkanen had a chance to be a Hornet. Charlotte was one of the teams rumored to be interested in the restricted free agent forward, but that rumor was put to bed with The Athletic’s David Aldridge reporting the Hornets were in discussions to sign Kelly Oubre Jr.

Tsunami Papi and the new Lob City? 

Kelly Oubre Jr. agreed to a two-year, $24.6 million deal with the Hornets with only $5 million guaranteed in the second year, similar to Smith’s deal having an option in year two. Oubre Jr. is an explosive wing that defends, rebounds, and has the confidence to shoot from range whenever he’s left open. He’s had a bit of an inconsistent career with a turbulent 2020-21 season with Golden State, but he fits nicely alongside Ball as a cutter and finisher. It’s likely Oubre Jr. remained unsigned for so long because he wanted to be a starter, be paid more, or both, but the Hornets’ patience rewarded them with a solid player at a position of need on a team-friendly contract.

Summer League and the last roster spot 

Unfortunately, Caleb Martin was waived, becoming a roster casualty of the new additions to the Hornets roster. Cody Martin and Jalen McDaniels also have non-guaranteed contracts for next season, and with the Hornets roster still sitting at 16 players after Caleb was waived, one more player will be cut to get the roster down to the NBA’s maximum of 15 players by the end of training camp.

Las Vegas Summer League could serve as a tryout of sorts for the last roster spot. Given that Martin and McDaniels were frequent rotation players last season, it’s not likely the Hornets will move on from them for nothing. Nick Richards and Vernon Carey Jr. are suddenly in a battle with not only each other, but rookies Kai Jones and JT Thor for minutes in the frontcourt. If neither second-year big shows enough potential to contribute, they could be the final roster casualty, though their contracts being guaranteed makes it a tougher decision to waive them. 

Last, but certainly not least, Arnoldas Kulboka and Scottie Lewis are the two-way players (players who can participate in NBA G League and their NBA team for the season), replacing Nate Darling and Grant Riller. Riller, the 56th pick in the 2020 Draft, is now an unrestricted free agent but will play with the Hornets in Summer League, which could be an indicator that he’s sticking with the organization in some capacity. 

After Summer League ends, the Hornets will be out of action for about a month before training camp begins in late September. There are still some roster decisions to be made, but the core members of the 2021-22 Hornets are mostly set in stone. Now, we wait.

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