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Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak focusing on player development, not free agency

After parting ways with veteran center Mason Plumlee at the trade deadline, Charlotte looks to develop young centers Mark Williams and Nick Richards.

Charlotte has the league’s 4th-worst record (15-41) heading into Friday night’s game against at Boston (7:30 ET, ESPN).

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Hornets are projected to have approximately $40 million in salary cap space this coming offseason, but that doesn’t mean owner Michael Jordan’s club will be big players in free agency come July.

Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said Charlotte’s focus moving forward will be on drafting well and developing its young players.

“I don’t think that is something that we can bank on as a small market team — I just don’t,” Kupchak said Friday of Charlotte’s ability to land elite players in free agency. “The way we are going to get better is through the draft and player development. And then if we get lucky, make a couple savvy trades. … We are a small market team and we have to look at the world a little differently.”

The Hornets haven’t participated in a playoff series since 2015-16 — and haven’t won one in more than two decades.

This season has been a monumental struggle, especially with injuries. Forward Miles Bridges was charged with domestic violence in July. Then the Hornets had a string of injuries to key players — LaMelo Ball, Gordon Hayward, Terry Rozier, Cody Martin and Kelly Oubre Jr.

It has contributed to Charlotte having the league’s fourth-worst record (15-41) heading into Friday night’s game against at Boston (7:30 ET, ESPN) While that may put the Hornets in contention to land Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson — largely considered the top two prospects in the upcoming draft — it doesn’t make them an attractive free agent destination.

Kupchak said he’s hopeful at some point down the road “maybe we can get a big fish,” but quickly added “right know I don’t think that is how we have to look at it. I think what is more important is our draft assets.”

The Hornets added a few more assets on Thursday.

Charlotte traded veteran center Mason Plumlee, who is in the midst of the best season of his 10-year career, and small forward Jalen McDaniels in separate deals that netted them three second-round draft picks.

Charlotte has five draft picks this year, two in the first round.

The decision to part ways with Plumlee allows the Hornets to develop young centers Mark Williams and Nick Richards, who’ve both shown promise. It’s a position the Hornets have struggled to fill since losing out on landing Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft after finishing the previous season with a league-worst 7-59 record.

As good as Mason has been with us this last year in particular, our future is not with Mason Plumlee,” Kupchak said. “Our future is going to be with our young players.”

Kupchak said moving McDaniels, a four-year player who has made big strides this season, was a difficult one. But it was clear he didn’t want to make a big investment in McDaniels given how much he likes young swingmen JT Thor and Bryce McGowens.

“We hate to lose Jalen but you can’t keep everybody,” Kupchak said.

Despite rampant trade rumors, the Hornets decided against moving Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier before the trade deadline. If nothing else, it shows that Kupchak isn’t willing to blow up the roster.

“You have to be careful. This is one of those years where you can’t really look at it and say ‘this is who we are and let’s plan accordingly,’” Kupchak said referring to Bridges and the injury situation. “I’m not sure that this year shows where this team is in its growth. Maybe, I’m wrong. But a lot of this stuff this team and organization has had to deal with doesn’t happen every year. They are unique situations.”

As for Bridges, the team’s leading scorer last season, Kupchak offered little in the way of the team’s plans with him moving forward. For now, Bridges remains a restricted free agent.

“The NBA is conducting an investigation and I don’t know when that is going to end,” Kupchak said. “When it ends, we’ll have more information and we’ll go from there. I’ll leave it up to you to decide what kind of impact that had on our team this year.”