NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets added a few gems in Thursday’s NBA draft, but the crown jewel is missing.
The team’s draft haul of guard Austin Rivers and forwards Anthony Davis and Darius Miller was impressive, but much of the team’s promising future depends on bringing back restricted free agent guard Eric Gordon.
“Eric’s the priority,” general manager Dell Demps said. “We’ve been saying that from the moment we acquired him.”
The opening of the league’s free agency period on Sunday offers New Orleans the chance to lock up Gordon and a few other veterans to play alongside their draft picks, notably a center.
Demps is well-positioned to do that, with plenty of room under the salary cap and a more stable future thanks to new owner Tom Benson and an attractive stable of young talent.
But before he dips into a free agent pool that includes names like Suns point guard Steve Nash, Nets point guard Deron Williams or Nuggets center JaVale McGee, he has to lock up Gordon.
Demps has said repeatedly that his plan is to retain and build around the 24-year-old Gordon, who played in just nine games (6-3) last season because of injury. He led the team in scoring in eight of those, posting a team-high 20.6 points per game.
New Orleans made the first move Thursday with a qualifying offer that makes Gordon a restricted free agent. That gives the Hornets a chance to match any other offers Gordon receives.
With cap room and long-term plans, there’s no reason to believe they won’t be successful.
“I never want to speak for anyone, but he has expressed that he is willing to sign,” Demps said. “He’s been coming back here and working out in the offseason, which is always a great thing. He was just here a couple of days ago working out at our facility, so he likes it here.”
Gordon was on hand for at least one of the Hornets’ pre-draft workouts with college prospects, and he recently sent Demps a picture message showing him running in sand, getting in shape for the season.
“He’s dedicated and ready, and we’re cheering for him,” Demps said.
In the end, it’s up to the Hornets, who have the cash to match any offer. Trading center Emeka Okafor and forward Trevor Ariza to Washington left a big hole in the frontcourt, but it also freed the team from expensive contracts.
The team is more than $20 million under the salary cap and is expected to buy out Rashard Lewis — who came via the trade — and waive him to save additional cap space.
Whether the Hornets go for a home run or wait until next year to make a big splash — the 2013 free agency class is considered more talented — remains to be seen, but there are two clear needs after signing Gordon.
The first is a center.
With Okafor gone and Chris Kaman an unrestricted free agent, there isn’t a true center on the roster. And that’s a must-have to place alongside Davis.
“There may be centers who say, ‘Look, things are changing in New Orleans, and that’s a place I want to go,’” coach Monty Williams said. “Right now, we don’t have a quote-unquote center, so there are a ton of minutes to be had. If you’re a young center, shucks, you want to come here and play.”
Williams and Demps didn’t rule out Kaman and said he left on good terms after averaging 15.4 points and 7.7 rebounds last season, but Williams said they hadn’t held any serious talks about bringing him back.
Next, the Hornets will look to beef up their veteran presence. They have just two players under contract who will enter next season with three or more years of experience: guard Jarrett Jack (seven years) and forward Jason Smith (four). Fifth-year players guard Marco Belinelli and forward Carl Landry are both unrestricted free agents.
“Those guys need help,” Williams said of adding more veterans. “You can’t ask two or three guys to run a team with the leadership.”
Luckily, Demps has the wallet to fix that, and he’s also eyeing plans to build a new training facility that will replace the outdated Alario Center in Westwego.
He’d like to place it next to the Saints’ facility, which would provide an additional lure for free agents.
All that adds up to a lot of excitement, but Demps isn’t getting too jumpy. He stressed patience as the key to this free agency period.
“It’s a little dangerous,” he said. “It’s kind of like buying a house, you overpay for the house and you can’t sell it. That’s the best analogy I can bring. You have this house and can’t get rid of it, and sometimes the house goes upside down and into foreclosure.
“That’s what we’re going to try to be, smart buyers.”