On NBA draft night, Pelicans have history of some hits, many misses

On draft night, New Orleans’ NBA franchise — like many others — has some hits, and many misses

New Orleans Hornets forward Julian Wright looks to get to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic during a Feb. 1, 2010, game in New Orleans. Wright, drafted in 2007 out of Kansas, averaged 3.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game in a four-year career.
New Orleans Hornets forward Julian Wright looks to get to the basket against Phoenix Suns guard Goran Dragic during a Feb. 1, 2010, game in New Orleans. Wright, drafted in 2007 out of Kansas, averaged 3.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game in a four-year career.

The Hornets’ first draft night in New Orleans should have been a tipoff of things to come.

There wasn’t one.

The team — which had relocated from Charlotte, N.C., just two months earlier, in the spring of 2002 — was to pick 17th in the first round. But the day before, they traded the choice to the Washington Wizards for third-year shooting guard Courtney Alexander.

The second-round pick had already been dealt to Miami for Dale Ellis in 2000.

“We’re a better team now than we were 12 hours ago,” Bob Bass, then the team’s executive vice president for basketball operations, said of Alexander. “He’s got a lot of game.”

It didn’t quite work out that way.

Although the Hornets did win three more games than the year before, they were bounced in the first round of the playoffs by Philadelphia. Then-coach Paul Silas, who said of Alexander, “He’s going to make me a better coach,” was fired at season’s end.

And Alexander?

He spent one season with the Hornets, averaging 7.8 points with seven starts. It turned out to be Alexander’s final year in the NBA.

Thus was born a tradition of mostly no picks and bad picks by the Hornets (they are now rechristened as the Pelicans, of course, but in the interest of historical clarity, they’ll be called the Hornets in this story).

It hasn’t been all bad — Chris Paul and David West were All-Stars — but in their 11 years since relocating from Charlotte, the Hornets went through five coaches, four general mangers and three owners (counting the NBA stewardship years), with only one playoff series victory to show for it.

Poor draft results have to be part of the reason.

“The Hornets probably aren’t worse than most other teams when it comes to drafting,” said team radio analyst John DeShazier. “That’s pretty much the nature of the NBA.

“But they’ve gone though so many changes, it’s been hard to develop a consistent philosophy that a team like the Spurs has.”

At least, barring the unexpected, the Pelicans will have a selection Thursday — currently No. 6 in the first round. The team’s 2013 second-round choice was part of the trade to acquire Robin Lopez from Phoenix.

But three times, the Hornets dealt away their first-round spots.

“This is a team of now,” then-coach Byron Scott said in 2008, when the team drafted and traded Darrell Arthur to Portland with the intent on saving the money for a free agent, who turned out to be James Posey.

The Hornets, coming off a seven-game Western semifinals loss to the Spurs, went on to win seven fewer games in 2009 and lose to Denver in the first round — a series that included a monumental 121-63 home loss to the Nuggets.

And when they kept their first-rounders, the results usually haven’t been good.

Sports Illustrated recently rated the worst lottery picks from major college powers in the past decade. Two selections by the Hornets — Hilton Armstrong of Connecticut in 2006 and Julian Wright of Kansas in 2007 were rated the worst from their schools.

Armstrong and Cedric Simmons — tabbed 12th and 16th, respectively, by the Hornets in 2006, along with second-rounder Marcus Vinicius — represented the biggest collective draft-year flop. The trio averaged a combined 7.5 points in their time with the Hornets.

In 11 years, the Hornets landed only three starters: West (2003), Paul (2005) and Anthony Davis (2012). Make it four if you count J.R. Smith, who started 56 games as a rookie in 2004-05 and 26 games the following season before being traded.

Davis, Austin Rivers and Darius Miller, the team’s three 2012 picks, are the players on the current roster drafted by the Hornets, and unless there’s a deal, that number will grow by only one more Thursday.

At least the Hornets have had few draft picks that went on to flourish elsewhere.

Smith, a high schooler when the Hornets took him with the 18th overall selection in 2004, had maturity problems (then-general manager Allen Bristow voiced his concerns about it at the time). Now 10 years into the league, Smith was the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year with the Knicks this season, but still has maturity issues.

Darren Collison, the first-round pick in 2009, reportedly clashed with Paul, whom he capably replaced as a rookie when Paul was injured. Collison is now the starting point guard at Dallas.

And Marcus Thornton, a second-round pick out of LSU in 2009, has emerged in Sacramento as a solid player.

But most have had negligible effects, either with the Hornets or subsequent teams.

On draft night, however, everyone looks good.

In 2006, when the team landed Armstrong and Simmons, then-general manager Jeff Bower said: “We’re as happy as we can be right now.”

A year later, when the team got Wright, Scott called him “a gift.”

However, on that night, DeShazier wrote that Wright was a poor fit for the team’s needs at small forward. That turned out to be the case.

“I just didn’t think he fit, and that turned out to be true,” said DeShazier. “There just aren’t a lot of sure things out there.”