Ball, Hayward key additions for Hornets

Charlotte still needs help at center

Devonte Graham and Cody Zeller are two key returning players for the Hornets, with Graham coming back to a crowded backcourt and Zeller tasked with leading an inexperienced group of centers. (Nell Redmond / AP Photo)

By all accounts, the Charlotte Hornets had an excellent draft night. And, by most of those same accounts, everything they’ve done since has been questionable.

Picking third in the NBA Draft, the Hornets were a bit handcuffed by the two teams ahead of them, but Charlotte may have had the best player in the draft fall to them. After Minnesota and Golden State took Anthony Edwards and James Wiseman, respectively, the Hornets were free to choose point guard LaMelo Ball.

The 6-foot-8 playmaker will impress with his court vision, and his shooting will likely continue to improve as the 19-year-old matures. As always when the Ball family is involved, there’s the potential of things devolving into a circus, but if he can remain focused on his on-court work, Ball could end up being a star for the Hornets.

The Hornets’ draft success wasn’t limited to the No. 3 pick, though. Charlotte made some savvy picks in the second round as well, getting three players who each have a chance of contributing to the team. Duke center Vernon Carey Jr. slipped out of the first round, but he is capable of playing in the paint or facing the basket. Kentucky’s Nick Richards is an athletic center. Both fill a spot where Charlotte desperately needs help since Cody Zeller was the only big man on the roster. The Hornets ranked near the bottom of the league in rebounding and blocked shots, so the middle likely needs more attention than a pair of second-round bigs can provide.

The Hornets also added Charleston point guard Grant Riller in the second round.

Drafting Ball meant the rumored trade for Russell Westbrook likely wasn’t going to happen, and sure enough, the All-Star guard ended up in Washington. But there was no doubt that Charlotte was trending upward after a successful infusion of talent on draft night. Obviously, there were still holes to fill, but a few calculating moves in NBA free agency could have had the Hornets contending for a playoff spot.

Those moves, to put things kindly, have raised eyebrows.

Charlotte waived Nic Batum, whose $120 million contract has made the team’s salary cap situation miserable. Any relief the team might have gotten from dropping Batum, however, was wiped out by the Hornets’ next move — a sign-and-trade deal with Boston to acquire Gordon Hayward.

There’s no question that Hayward is a good player. He’s a former All-Star who averaged 17.5 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.1 assists last year.

Of course, Hayward is 31 and still working his way back into the player he was before a serious leg injury cost him the 2017-18 season.

Then there’s the matter of his contract. The Hornets signed him to a four-year, $120 million deal that seems excessive to most observers and evokes memories of the Batum deal the team just shed.

Ball is a fan of the pickup, however, and the two seem to be working well together on the court early in training camp. Ball called Hayward “a great guy, great fit and great add.”

Second-year forward P.J. Washington could play some center if the Hornets decide to use a smaller lineup. (David Zalubowski / AP Photo)

The Hornets then re-signed free agent center Bismack Biyombo. He’s been a bench player for the Hornets and plays a position of need for the team but, like the two second-round picks the team used on centers, it’s tough to say this move fills the hole the Hornets have in the middle. Instead, it undermines some of the team’s success on draft day. Biyombo’s presence means fewer minutes for the two draft picks and could cost one of them a spot on the roster. It’s doubtful the Hornets will keep all three of Biyombo, Carey and Richards.

The Hornets also let go of a pair of centers, choosing not to make a qualifying offer to Dwayne Bacon and allowing Willy Hernangomez to leave.

There’s still the possibility the team might be able to fill that area of need. Rumors of a multiteam trade that would put Clint Capela in Charlotte have been circulating. That would put some of the Hornets’ offseason moves as part of a bigger plan should the team add the 26-year-old big man who averaged 13.9 points and 13.8 rebounds last season.

Without Capela, it appears Zeller will get most of the minutes inside. In the event of injury, foul trouble or rest, the Hornets might embrace small ball, using the team’s abundance of guards — Ball, Terry Rozier, Devonte Graham and Malik Monk — with Hayward and Miles Bridges at forward and 2019 first-rounder P.J. Washington in the middle.