Hornets draft results do little to relieve free agency uncertainty

Free agent Kemba Walker’s decision will shape Charlotte’s direction

Charlotte Hornets draft picks Cody Martin, left, and PJ Washington, right, pose with general manager Mitch Kupchak, center, during a news conference Friday in Charlotte. (Chuck Burton / AP Photo)

With the Charlotte Hornets’ free agent activity likely focused on finding ways to keep key contributors Kemba Walker and Jeremy Lamb — or replace them — the team’s easiest path to significant improvement was through the NBA Draft.

The team continued its recent pattern of draft picks with last week’s selections. They focused on players who can do a little bit of everything, instead of filling a specific hole or area of need.

Like recent draft additions Malik Monk, Dwayne Bacon and Miles Bridges, the Hornets continued to look for players who can contribute in a variety of ways — much like the college trend toward “positionless” basketball.

With their first-round pick, 12th overall, the Hornets took Kentucky sophomore PJ Washington. The 6-foot-7 power forward was a five-star recruit in 2017, ranked in the top 12 nationally by all major recruiting services. He chose Kentucky over North Carolina, among other schools, and was expected to be another in coach John Calipari’s long line of NBA one-and-done freshmen.

Washington battled nagging injuries as a freshman, averaging 10.8 points and 5.7 rebounds. After going through the predraft evaluation process, he returned to Kentucky for another year, earning first-team All-SEC with 15.2 points per game and 7.6 rebounds. More important than his improved stat line, however, was his development in outside shooting and defense, which will help him at the next level.

Washington is expected to be able to guard any position, from three to five, allowing him to be paired on the court with Bridges or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

He’ll likely replace Marvin Williams, either when the former Tar Heels’ contract expires following the upcoming season or immediately, if Williams chooses to exercise his player option to leave this offseason. Williams has indicated he plans to return to Charlotte.

In the second round, the Hornets chose Mocksville’s Cody Martin, out of Nevada. The former Wolfpack standout was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year after transferring with his twin brother, Caleb.

While Caleb was the conference player of the year and better scorer, Cody’s ability on the other end of the floor appealed to the Hornets and other NBA teams. Caleb ended up going undrafted. Cody earned a spot in the Draft Combine in Chicago after excelling at the G League Elite Camp earlier in the week.

At the end of the second round, the Hornets added a project in San Diego State’s Jalen McDaniels. At 6-foot-10, McDaniels has impressive length, but at 195 pounds, he needs to add some bulk to his frame to compete in the NBA.

Again in keeping with recent Charlotte draft picks, fans shouldn’t expect to see an immediate impact from the draft class of 2019. Discussing his draft night, GM Mitch Kupchak said he expected all three picks, including Washington, to spend significant time in the G League with the Greensboro Swarm.

Bacon and Devonte Graham followed a similar pattern last year, and, while Washington likely will spend the majority of his rookie year with the big club, the minor league affiliation will allow the Hornets to bring along their young talent slowly while gradually integrating them into the lineup.

That leaves free agency as the only remaining way to change the face of the team heading into next season.

While re-signing Kemba Walker will be the team’s priority, it’s likely the team will be in an either-or position with Walker and Lamb, keeping one, at best.

There are plenty of talented veterans that should be available to help fill holes on the roster as the offseason goes on. Brook Lopez and JaVale McGee are two who have been mentioned by several outlets as being good fits for the team.

With Tony Parker, added last offseason, announcing his retirement, Walker’s departure could leave the team in desperate need of a guard who can distribute and score, with Tyus Jones being one option that could be available.

Essentially, despite all the draft picks and potential veteran pick-ups this summer, the Hornets’ offseason will come down to Walker. If he’s wearing a different uniform next season, the team will likely be on its way to full rebuilding mode.