Kupchak, Hornets Finish Final Preparations for Thursday’s 2021 NBA Draft

by Sam Perley

A slightly-more-normal offseason draft evaluation process is quickly coming to an end as President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak and the Charlotte Hornets head into Thursday night with the 11th, 56th and 57th overall selections.

Last year, the Hornets and the rest of the NBA had the benefit of pre-pandemic in-person scouting, although draft eligible players were limited to primarily only Zoom interviews. That trend has now flipped with limited access to college and international games in the 2020-21 campaign, but the Combine and live pre-draft workouts back in full swing.

“All the scouting was done via video and then the last three or four weeks, we’ve been bringing in probably close to 80 players into Charlotte for individual workouts,” said Kupchak during Monday morning’s pre-draft media availability. “You got to be careful that bringing them in doesn’t overly sway the way you look at a player and disregard what you watched [on video]. You can get a great feel for their athleticism, skill level. It’s helped quite a bit.”

Like he stated at the end of the regular season, Kupchak reiterated the team’s need to simply integrate more talent into the roster moving forward. “We’re not deep enough to be able to sustain an injury or two,” he said. “We’ve just got to add talent to this team. There is a player or two that are four-year guys that would be considered at 11, but most of the time at 11, you’re going to get someone very young. If it is a young player, [we’d like him] to be talented with great character that would fit in to what we’re trying to build here in Charlotte.”

Centers Kai Jones (Texas) and Alperen Sengun (Turkey), guards Moses Moody (Arkansas) and James Bouknight (Connecticut) and wings Corey Kispert (Gonzaga), Jalen Johnson (Duke) and Ziaire Williams (Stanford) have all worked out for the team and are projected mid-to-late lottery selections according to NBA.com. All these players would fit into the “young” category with the exception of the 22-year-old, First-Team All-American Kispert.

Current guards Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk could both be heading for restricted free agency in the upcoming weeks and centers Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo will both be unrestricted free agents as well. For most in the Hornets’ particular position, there’s careful balance and consideration put forth in terms of drafting the best player available versus drafting for need.

“We are going to look to take the best available talent,” added Kupchak. “If there are two players [at different positions] that are definitely equal in talent and skill level, then maybe we lean to a big because like I mentioned, that’s an area that there’s more uncertainty. We’re a little short in the backcourt and you could always use another wing. So, we would probably still continue to lean towards the best talent available, but at some point, if it’s real close, there will be some discussions based on need.”
Once sitting at the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race, injuries to Gordon Hayward, LaMelo Ball, Graham and Monk caused the Hornets’ promising season to lose momentum towards the end of the 2020-21 campaign. But a healthy roster, continued internal development, a more normalized schedule and then hitting on that 11th pick could put the team in prime position for its first playoff berth since 2015-16.

“I think naturally the bar has been [raised],” Kupchak stated. “I think expectations are probably more this year coming up than they were last year. People expect more. I think our coaches and players expect more. We’ve got to keep it going. We’ve got a lot of flexibility with our cap and we’ve got three picks. Moving forward and continuing to improve, and hopefully, [we] contend for a playoff spot this year. Based on how we played last year, I would hope that we continue to improve and that we’re in the hunt.”

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