Two lottery picks, cap space give New Orleans chance to improve
WESTWEGO — What the Hornets will do with the first overall pick in Thursday’s NBA draft is perhaps the worst-kept secret in the league.
But after that, it’s anyone’s guess.
“We’re looking at every possible opportunity,” General Manager Dell Demps said.
Such is the luxury of having the Nos. 1, 10 and 46 selections — the first time the franchise has ever had two lottery picks — and plenty of room under the salary cap to make a splash in the free agency pool, which opens July 1.
Once New Orleans inevitably takes 6-foot-10 Kentucky forward Anthony Davis with its first pick, options abound.
The Hornets could choose another big man to pair with Davis, likely one of the seven they invited for workouts this month: 6-foot-11 Baylor forward Perry Jones III, 6-9 Ohio State forward Jared Sullinger, 6-9 Kentucky forward Terrence Jones, 7-foot North Carolina forward/center Tyler Zeller, 6-11 UNC forward John Henson, 7-1 Illinois center Meyers Leonard, or 6-11 Mississippi State forward Arnett Moultrie.
Draft predictions vary wildly on what will happen after the first five picks, but at least a few of those names will still be on the board for the 10th slot. Reports have linked Zeller as a favorite.
There’s also a chance that 7-foot Connecticut center Andre Drummond could slip into the Hornets’ grasp.
Or the team could think smaller, opting for a guard to fit into coach Monty Williams’ up-tempo attack.
There, the team has worked out nine players, including likely first-rounders Austin Rivers (Duke), Kendall Marshall (North Carolina), Jeremy Lamb (Connecticut), and Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten (Washington). Weber State point guard Damian Lillard may be in the mix as well.
A third option is to trade the pick and bring in veteran help, or move down in the order. And then there’s still that No. 46 pick, which the team acquired in a trade with the Wizards last week.
Suffice it to say, the Hornets can have it their way.
“Any time you have that many picks in a draft like this, I still don’t think there’s a savior in this draft, but I think there’s a lot of depth,” Williams said. “If you have three picks, you get a chance to look at some guys that more than likely in a different draft you wouldn’t have a chance to get.”
The pre-draft workouts (the team has a sixth and final one planned for Wednesday) have given Williams a chance to meet a slew of prospects who, if not through this draft, could land in New Orleans via future trades or free agency.
That’s part of the long-term approach Demps is taking.
In the trade with Washington, he sent two of the team’s heftiest contracts — center Emeka Okafor and forward Trevor Ariza — away in exchange for the second-round pick and forward Rashard Lewis, whom they will likely buy out and waive.
That leaves about $20 million of cap space — plenty to re-sign restricted free agent guard Eric Gordon and go shopping.
Demps has said his goal is to build around Gordon, and the two lottery picks leave him poised to do so. But with an expected nucleus of the 23-year-old Gordon and 19-year-old Davis, it may take a few years before the Hornets can reap the rewards.
Depending on the draft and free-agency results, New Orleans Arena could be a basketball nursery next season.
After offloading Okafor and Ariza, there are six players left on the roster with three-plus years of experience. Three of them (center Chris Kaman, guard Marco Belinelli and forward Carl Landry) are unrestricted free agents. Gordon, guard Jarrett Jack and forward Jason Smith are the others.
Demps spoke of the importance of having a veteran presence to guide young talent, and while he’s in a position to have both, he could just as easily wind up with neither.
“We think the future is bright, but we also know we have to make it happen,” Demps said. “Just because you have cap space, sometimes that can be fool’s gold. If you spend it on the wrong person, you can really handicap your franchise.”
But for now, the buzz surrounding the Hornets is decidedly more positive than at season’s end, when they finished with the worst record in the Western Conference.
“They’re obviously up-and-coming,” said UNC’s Marshall, who worked out with Williams on Saturday. “With — I think it’s safe to say — Davis coming here, he’d be a great big man to play with. … I feel like it can be a great system for some up-and-coming players to really get the program on the map.”