With the NBA Draft quickly approaching, will the Hornets be looking to make a blockbuster trade?

By Chase Whitney

June 15, 2022 (updated)

Photo: Alex Cason

Since Mitch Kupchak took over as general manager, the NBA Draft has been a crucial facet of the organization’s team-building strategy, as the draft often is for most successful small-market teams. Kupchak’s arrival marked a drastic shift in Charlotte’s draft fortunes– he hit on multiple second-round picks, drafted LaMelo Ball third overall and landed two building blocks in Miles Bridges and PJ Washington outside the top-10. The June 23 draft marks the first time the Hornets have entered draft night with two first-round picks since Kupchak took over, giving him plenty of ammunition to make a trade.

The possibility of a draft night trade

For a franchise that fired its previous head coach for not meeting the front office’s expectations, it’s unlikely that bringing in three rookies with the 13th, 15th and 45th overall selections is the preferred path on draft night. James Bouknight, Kai Jones and JT Thor didn’t receive consistent playing time during their rookie seasons, and there would be at least five developmental players on the roster if two first-round picks were added. 

The Hornets currently have 11 players under contract for next season, including the non-guaranteed deals of Kelly Oubre Jr., Mason Plumlee and Nick Richards, who can all be cut loose with varying degrees of financial penalty. Packaging any of these three along with pick No. 13 and/or No. 15 would make for an easy trade route as they have salaries that can easily be matched. 

But at this point, it doesn’t seem like the trade market for two mid first-round picks is going to be robust. Very few teams ahead of the Hornets are in greater need of two late lottery picks over one top-10 pick. Most of the high-upside players will be gone by 13 which gives little incentive to trade down, and the Hornets don’t have a disgruntled star to part with nor the cap flexibility to acquire a star in a blockbuster deal. 

Could Gordon Hayward or Terry Rozier be traded? 

There is a route the Hornets could take to free up cap space and use draft assets to swing for a big trade this summer, but that would most likely mean parting with Gordon Hayward or Terry Rozier. 

Hayward has been the subject of trade rumors since going down with an injury as the Hornets were blown out in the play-in game for the second-straight year, and his $30 million salary next season is by far the highest on the team. Hayward is an effective player when healthy, averaging 17.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game on 47/40/84 shooting splits his last two seasons in Charlotte. Despite making a lot of money, he’s not in the top-35 most expensive contracts in the NBA, which could make him a trade target. 

While Rozier is not the pariah Hayward has become for Hornets fans, his contract could also be moved to reel in a big fish. Averaging out at over $24 million a year for the next four seasons, we can presume that he’s more desired around the league after three mostly healthy seasons that saw him eclipse 18 points per game. Rozier might be a better trade piece than Hayward, but he’s unlikely to be moved given his age and leadership.

It’s possible Rozier or Hayward are included in a draft night trade, but if either are to be moved, it may be after free agency kicks off when teams have a clearer view of their offseason plans. 

Prospects in play at pick No. 13 and No. 15

We all know the Hornets need a center. Anyone reading this knows the Hornets need a center. We all know the Hornets need a center, and the 2022 NBA mock drafts have reflected that.

One of the most popular mock selections for the Hornets is Mark Williams, a center out of Duke. Williams was the tallest and longest player at the NBA Combine, measuring in at 7’2” with a 9’9” standing reach and a 7’6.5” wingspan– prototypical measurements for a modern-day rim protector. Defensively, he is the exact type of player Charlotte needs; big, powerful, active and instinctual as a shot-blocker and alterer with the presence to deter opposing players from finishing at the rim. He doesn’t space the floor, make plays or create offense for himself off the dribble, but he wouldn’t need to if paired with LaMelo Ball. 

Jalen Duren has a lesser chance of falling to the Hornets than Williams due to the upside he possesses as a two-way big. Duren is a monstrous athlete with a chiseled frame and will still be 18 years old on opening night, a full two years younger than Williams. He’s a bit smaller at 6’11” with a 7’5” wingspan, but he’s more explosive, stronger, and has shown more capability as an on-ball scorer and passer. His combination of rim protection, athleticism and passing has drawn comparisons to 2021-22 second-team NBA All-Defensive center Robert Williams III.

If the Hornets end up making both first-round picks, one will likely be used on a wing, or at least a player who can defend them. Tari Eason and Jeremy Sochan are the premier aggressive, twitchy, defensive-minded prospects outside the top seven and both would provide fortitude to Charlotte’s porous perimeter defense. Eason doubled as a volume scorer at LSU last season, averaging 16.9 points per game off the bench and using supreme instincts to grab 1.9 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Sochan, while a bit younger and less polished at the moment, has the potential to be a jack-of-all-trades offensively while being a legitimately switchable defender that can guard all positions at his ceiling. 

Another scorer wouldn’t hurt either, and the Hornets have brought in Ochai Agbaji, Jaden Hardy and Blake Wesley for pre-draft workouts, all of whom have the potential to be offensive weapons. 

The Hornets also hosted Shaedon Sharpe for his first solo workout. Sharpe is the man of mystery in this class; he hasn’t played competitive basketball since high school after graduating early and sat out half the season at Kentucky. His elite vertical, footwork and three-level shot creation scream lottery pick, but he just hasn’t shown scouts much over the last two years. Regardless, his draft range appears to be between No. 4 and No. 10, well above the Hornets’ slot. If a trade materializes, don’t be surprised if it’s for Sharpe.

Whether both picks are packaged in a trade or Kupchak makes both picks, the Hornets are in a good position to add pieces to a young team to potentially get to the next level. This will certainly be a pivotal offseason for the franchise. 

The NBA Draft airs live on Thursday, June 23 at 7:30 p.m. EST on ESPN and ABC.

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