CHARLOTTE — Two seasons ago, the Charlotte Hornets pulled off a feat that they have historically failed at during their franchise’s history — nailing a first-round pick in the NBA Draft.
LaMelo Ball, the No. 3 pick in 2020, has been a godsend for the Hornets, but now the team must add more talent around him and burgeoning star forward Miles Bridges while specifically addressing a lack of a rim protector and a lackluster defense.
Luckily for general manager Mitch Kupchak and team owner Michael Jordan, the Hornets have two picks in the top 15 selections of Thursday’s 2022 NBA Draft. That gives Charlotte the ammunition to consider doing a lot of things in Brooklyn: select two players at No. 13 and No. 15, package the picks to move up in the draft or attempt a trade for a big man already in the league. The Hornets also hold the 45th overall pick in the draft’s second round.
After a solid-but-not-spectacular 43-39 season in which Charlotte took a step forward by winning 10 more games than the year before but also missing the playoffs by imploding in the Play-In Tournament, the Hornets still need to take another step to end their postseason drought.
Still without a head coach after Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson reneged after agreeing to a contract in principle, Charlotte has a chance to pick up some needed offseason momentum on Thursday even with the coaching situation still up in the air.
One option with the 13th pick is Duke center Mark Williams. The defensive-minded 7-footer would instantly bolster the Hornets’ frontcourt while providing elite shot-blocking ability paired with a growing offensive game that he flashed during his sophomore season with the Blue Devils.
The 20-year-old from Norfolk, Virginia, struggled in Duke’s Final Four loss to UNC but ultimately improved his draft stock through his other NCAA Tournament performances. Williams is still raw in many ways but has proven to be a coachable talent with a viable future as an NBA starter sometime down the road, if not immediately.
Baylor freshman forward Jeremy Sochan and Memphis freshman center Jalen Duren have also been linked to Charlotte. Both are viewed by league scouts as among the best pure defenders in the entire draft. Sochan recorded the fourth-best defensive rating (89.8%) in the Big 12 last season, while Duren has a 7-foot-5 wingspan and was named the American Athletic Conference Freshman of the Year last season.
One or two of Williams, Sochan and Duren should be available when Charlotte makes its two selections.
If all three of these big men are off the board by the time Charlotte gets to pick, Ohio State freshman Malaki Branham could be on the Hornets’ radar. The shooting guard excelled as a mid-range scorer for the Buckeyes last season and is already an elite pick-and-roll wing at just 19 years old.
Charlotte could do much worse than pairing Branham with Ball in the backcourt.
If Kupchak and Jordan are not sold on Branham as the next Hornets guard, Wisconsin sophomore Johnny Davis and Kansas senior Ochai Agbaji have each been brought up as potential lottery picks. Davis, however, could be off the board by No. 13, while Agbaji is a bit of a wild card based on draft predictions.
The Hornets could also consider engineering a trade, and their 15th overall pick has been rumored to be available.
It has also been reported that Charlotte is a potential landing spot for Indiana’s Myles Turner if he and the Pacers fail to negotiate a long-term contract extension. Similarly, San Antonio’s Jakob Poeltl and Dallas’ Christian Wood have also been rumored to potentially be on the move.
It’s a pivotal draft for the Hornets as they look to take the next step to contender. The team needs to its draft to resemble the years it landed Ball and Kemba Walker rather than busts like Frank Kaminsky or Noah Vonleh.