Boos rang out at the Spectrum Center on June 22 during a watch party for the 2023 NBA Draft — a disappointed (but for some disappointing) reaction to the Charlotte Hornets choosing Brandon Miller, a small forward from the University of Alabama, with the second overall pick of the draft that night.
Clips of a similar reaction during a Crown Club watch party at Pinhouse went viral, while back at Spectrum Center, even team mascot Hugo looked disappointed with the pick.
In May’s lottery, Charlotte just missed out on Victor Wembanyama, considered by many around the league to be a generational player, drawing the No. 2 pick, losing out to the San Antonio Spurs (the Hornets had just a 12.5% chance at the first pick while the Spurs had a 14% chance).
For the last two years, Wembanyama has been the presumed No. 1 pick, followed by G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson on most mock drafts. Henderson was considered more than a consolation prize, with plenty of analysts sure he would have been a first overall pick in most any other year.
Even Miller’s father, Darrell Miller, thought highly of Scoot, telling Queen City Nerve during a press conference at Spectrum Center following the draft that “Scoot’s a great kid. I’ve met him and I met his parents. I went to a game he played in Las Vegas, so I think he would have been a great two pick too, but I’ve got to be biased, he’s not my son.”
It was likely the years of hype for Henderson that inspired the negative reactions from fans on draft night, or perhaps some were troubled by Miller making national headlines for his name being associated with the killing of a woman in Tuscaloosa in January, though he was never charged and was not believed to even be present for the incident.
As a player, the 6-foot-9-inch Miller was the right choice. You can’t teach size and 3-point shooting is a must in today’s NBA; this Hornets team was lacking greatly in that department last season.
Hornets President of Basketball Operations and GM Mitch Kupchak had this to say about his choice: “By taking him at 2, I think that speaks the world about what I think of him. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we feel really good, and I hope in four to five years, I can look back at it and my feelings are justified. He’s got great size, he’s got great athletic ability. In our league, shooting the ball is a premium (and he was) one of the best shooters in the draft. To get a dynamic wing like him in this league, we think we’re fortunate.”
For Charlotte, far from a desired free agent destination, the best way to build a team that can compete is through the draft.
“For our plan, it’s to build a team through the G League, drafting, maybe making a savvy trade,” said Kupchak, “and if there’s a free agent who makes sense, of course we’ll do that, but we look to build through the draft.”
When you look at most successful teams in the league today — consistently good teams like Golden State and Denver, the last two NBA champions — they built their teams through the draft, as did the Boston Celtics, another team on the rise and sniffing at a title.
With that in mind, the Hornets utilized their picks well throughout the remainder of the draft, scoring high-upside players who many thought would go earlier in the evening. Nick Smith Jr. from Arkansas was considered the best prospect coming into college last year before he was slowed by injuries, allowing him to drop to No. 27 in the draft on June 22. At that point, he was a steal, and if he can return to previous form, he has huge potential.
Kupchak agreed. “We feel very fortunate to get Nick where we did,” he said.
Smith and Miller also have an existing relationship, as they played on the same AAU team in high school.
In the second round, the Hornets traded up for James Nnaji, a raw young center they likely will stash away for the coming season; along with Amari Bailey, a guard from UCLA who was projected to go much sooner than No. 41 overall.
After voicing his excitement about scoring players like Smith and Bailey surprisingly low in the draft, Kupchak followed up with a note of caution: “I can’t remember a draft that I left where I wasn’t very happy, and they were not all great drafts when you look back on it in four years.”
Re-signings and extensions define the Hornets’ free agency period
NBA free agency kicked off on June 30, and while the Hornets weren’t expected to be major players this year due in large part to reasons already mentioned above, they have made some notable moves over the last week.
One such move — one that could be called expected but still controversial — the Hornets brought back restricted free agent Miles Bridges, signing him to the $7.9-million one-year qualifying offer they had made to him before free-agency began. The restricted free agency tag gave them the opportunity to match another offer if he received one, which he did not.
Bridges missed the entire season 2022-’23 following a domestic violence arrest in 2022 and will miss the first 10 games of the upcoming season as part of his punishment.
Bridges and the Hornets reportedly discussed a more long-term contract extension but were far apart on negotiations, so he will become an unrestricted free-agent next year.
While the Hornets were considered one of the least talented rosters in 2022-’23, there are reasons to be optimistic about the coming season. On the guard line, there’s LaMelo Ball, considered the leader of the team. He finalized a 5-year, $260-million contract extension on July 6, the best news tied for this team since the free-agency period started in June 30, and arguably long before then.
Terry Rozier brings his veteran presence to the backcourt, which should help cultivate Smith and Bailey as up-and-coming alongside Bryce McGowens, who had a nice rookie season. James Bouknight, who’s had a less-than-auspicious start to his career thus far, adds some depth, but there’s not a ton of experience outside of the likely starters.
With the return of Bridges and the addition of Miller, the forward position will see more competition. Bridges and Ball have been tight both on and off the court previously, and Bridges return may have played a role in Ball’s extension. It will be interesting to see how head coach Steve Clifford uses Bridges once he’s back from his suspension, as he plays the same position Miller cites as his favorite. Bridges could conceivably play power forward, but at 6-foot-6, he’s a bit short for the position.
During his press conference, Miller wasn’t shy about where he sees himself fitting into the lineup.
“Definitely at the 3 [small forward],” he said. “You have Lamelo Ball’s playmaking. I think him being a playmaker and me being a shot-maker, I think that kind of fits well. Not just that, but how we take pride on the defensive side, we can really lock in and get the stops we need to win ball games.”
Adding to the mix is Gordon Hayward, who has had difficulty staying on the court due to injuries. Of his three years with the team, last year was his worst, with his numbers decreasing in almost every category, including the all-important 3-point shooting. Based on his injury history, he might be better coming off the bench for the team.
Question marks for the Charlotte Hornets lineup
Two players that had a lot of minutes for Charlotte last year are currently in limbo. Kelly Oubre Jr. had the best scoring season of his career last year, and while nobody has officially picked up the unrestricted free agent at the time of this writing, he’s likely gone.
P.J. Washington is another player who had his best season yet for the team last year. As a restricted free agent, the Hornets can match any offer he receives if they want to keep him. His current qualifying offer stands at $8.5 million.
Despite last season’s success, his shooting percentage from distance dropped a bit. He’s reportedly looking for a lot more money and there are rumors that Dallas might be interested in him, so stay tuned for that news.
Cody Martin will be back after missing most of last season with an injury. He adds defensive toughness and runs the court well from the small forward position. JT Thor will be the only true power forward if Washington leaves. There is also talk that the Hornets are interested in Boston Celtics power forward Grant Williams.
Manning the middle, Mark Williams is entering his second year after an encouraging rookie season, providing defense in the paint as well as rebounding, along with a ferocious dunk or two per game for good measure. Nick Richards is backing him up and may have to play some power forward depending on what happens with that position, and center/forward Kai Jones is still on the roster too.
For my money, Miller is versatile enough to play shooting guard, small forward, and even power forward if needed — he’s even a good enough ball handler to play the point at times.
When I asked him about his response to the media draft experts who had speculated that he had a high floor but questioned his ceiling, Miller said, “I don’t really want to get into the media, but I know what I’m capable of doing.”
A lineup of Ball, Rozier, Miller, and Williams, with some combination of Bridges, Hayward and Washington (if he stays) could be something to reckon with in the future. Add in the rookies and we’ve got a much more interesting season of Hornets basketball to look forward to.
It’s something for the boo-birds of June’s draft night to consider, says Miller.
“To the ones that’s booing, I’m here to let you know we’re going to get a lot of wins this year,” he insisted during his press conference. “My message to Charlotte Hornets fans would be that y’all will see us at the end of the year holding that big trophy up.”
I see the Hornets being a much-improved team that should compete for the play-in this season, potentially with an even brighter future ahead — just not quite as soon as Miller sees it. The confidence doesn’t hurt, however.
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