NBA Draft: Should the Hornets draft for need or shoot for a star?

Charlotte Hornets Mitch Kupchak. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports
Charlotte Hornets Mitch Kupchak. Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports /

If you asked a group of ten Charlotte Hornets fans which direction the team should go in Thursday’s NBA Draft, you would receive seven different answers. Some will demand that Charlotte draft a center, which has been the biggest position of need for the team since Al Jefferson was taking young big men to school in 2014. Others might claim that taking the best player available will yield the best long-term results. Still others would tell you the Hornets should not make those picks at all but should package them both and trade for a veteran player who has already established his value in the league.

With the copious amount of smoke that always billows around the league during draft week, the Hornets’ true intentions remain shrouded in mystery. The front office certainly has a lot on their plate after Kenny Atkinson backed out of the head coaching job a few days ago, and there have been minimal leaks of substance connecting the Hornets to any players in the draft. So, while the team could go infinite directions in regard to actual players, their draft strategy itself is equally important.

Drafting a center or a defensive-minded wing that can come off the bench will help Charlotte the most in the short-term. However, taking a player that may be a head-scratcher at first, such as a backcourt mate that aligns with Lamelo Ball’s timeline, might be a wiser pick for the future of the franchise, even if that player may be hard-pressed to find minutes immediately.

The case For drafting for need

The Hornets entered last offseason with a need at center and came away with stopgap solutions instead of a long-term answer. If the front office refuses to address the center position during yet another offseason, many fans will be exasperated and the team will be underequipped for the coming year.

While the team technically did address the need last offseason by trading for Mason Plumlee and drafting Kai Jones, neither player felt like immediate high-level solutions to the problem. Unsurprisingly, the hole at the center position quickly became apparent, with lackluster center play hurting the Hornets on both ends of the floor numerous times throughout the campaign.

The Hornets are an extremely promising young team that posted a winning record for the first time in six years only to fire James Borrego, signaling their entry into win-now mode. Thus, filling a need in the draft, most notably center and backup point guard, is the quickest way to win immediately and makes drafting for need even more alluring. With a player like LaMelo Ball, fans are clamoring for the front office to fill the roster with the most talent at every position as soon as possible.

The case For drafting the best player available

If a team drafts a star, they had a successful draft. Roster fit and minutes distribution can always be assessed down the line, and they do not usually pose as large of a problem as pundits would lead you to believe. Drafting the best player on the board is almost always a smart move, even if passing on a less talented player who could instantly solve a team’s deficiencies feels frustrating at the time. That said, there are many instances of teams ignoring fit and drafting the best player to great success, and many more instances of teams drafting simply for immediate need, and leaving a star-caliber player on the board.

For example, NBA fans did not understand why the Philadelphia 76ers would draft a center named Joel Embiid with the third overall pick after using the sixth overall pick on Nerlens Noel the year prior. Years later, it is obvious that Embiid was the right selection.

Conversely, the Golden State Warriors chose to pass on a generational talent in LaMelo Ball to draft James Wiseman because they needed a center. Just two years later, Golden State is outwardly trying to trade Wiseman, and LaMelo Ball is well on his way to superstardom.

The Boston Celtics drafted two very similar players in consecutive years when they selected Jaylen Brown in 2016 and Jayson Tatum in 2017. While the fit might not have been seamless, those selections have proven to be wise ones.

These examples all involve top-five picks, and the talent gap between prospects becomes significantly smaller towards the end of the lottery, but the principal remains the same.

Finding A Balance Between Immediate Help and Long-Term Upside

Addressing an immediate need while also selecting the player that the front office sees as the best player available is a dream scenario for any team. It is also a scenario that is difficult to come by.

However, there is some middle ground between drafting for need and drafting the best player available, and that middle ground will be pertinent to the Hornets draft strategy this week. At some point, the gap between the most talented player on the board and the one that fits an immediate need is miniscule enough to justify taking the player that can benefit your team more quickly. In this draft, a player like Jeremy Sochan has been linked to the Hornets, and he would theoretically give the Hornets the versatile wing defender that they desperately need, even if it comes a few years down the road.

Compare Sochan to a player such as Johnny Davis, who would provide guard depth more quickly for the Hornets, but might not have Sochan’s upside, and the decision becomes more difficult.

So, What Should the Hornets Do?

If Mitch Kupchak and Michael Jordan think that Jalen Duren, Mark Williams, or another prospect can immediately plug a hole in this roster and is also the best player on the board, then they should draft that prospect. However, they should not draft any player on the basis of that player providing immediate help next season. Holding two top-15 picks allows the Hornets some flexibility but picking the best player available at both spots is the best strategy for the Hornets.

Hornets fans are desperate for postseason success and calls for patience fall on deaf ears seeing as Hornets fans have not witnessed a playoff series victory since 2002. However, even players that are touted as immediate contributors must acclimate upon arriving to the league. With that in mind, drafting for a potential upgrade at a position of need should be spurned in favor of a higher-ceiling player who is more skilled, even if the immediate fit is imperfect.

Obviously, the Hornets should address the center position, backup point guard, and their overall team defense this summer. However, addressing an immediate need through the draft at the expense of players who can potentially supply more value in the long term is a move that other teams have made and then regretted more often than not.