Let’s say this for the Charlotte Hornets’ two new first-round picks: They understand how to sell tickets.
Shooting guard James Bouknight and big man Kai Jones flew to Charlotte on Friday morning after getting selected in the top 20 picks of the NBA draft by the Hornets on Thursday night. By Friday afternoon they were already drumming up business.
“We’re going to be must-see TV,” Jones said. “We’re going to be fun to watch.”
“I want to contend for rookie of the year,” Bouknight said of the award his new teammate LaMelo Ball won last season. “I think I’m that caliber of player.”
The words “good box office” came up a few times, too, as did “showtime,” as did several others of that genre. On a team that already features Ball and “Air” Miles Bridges, who is one of the NBA’s most creative dunkers and the recipient of many of Ball’s lobs, the two rookies promise they are about to add another dose of excitement.
As I wrote on the night of the draft, I agree with them.
As long as they can defend, too, Bouknight and Jones should get decent minutes right away because they both play a position of need for Charlotte. The Hornets are working on establishing more depth this season, and both should factor into that quickly. It’s less certain how second-round picks J.T. Thor and Scottie Lewis will be used, but the Hornets obviously put a premium on athleticism and giving themselves more options in this draft.
“For the last 2-3 years, I’ve indicated that we need to add talent to this team,” Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “We’re not good enough to say, ‘We need a center’ and then just take a center. I think we saw last year that we were a pretty good team. But once we got hurt, we weren’t able to sustain it. And that’s, quite frankly, because we just weren’t deep enough.”
Kupchak said he had traded a protected future first-round pick to the New York Knicks for the right to get Jones, who was chosen at No. 19 after Bouknight went 11th. The pick’s protections weren’t immediately clear, but the draft choice is scheduled to go to the Knicks in 2022 unless it’s a high selection.
The contingency was that the Hornets were only going to do the deal if Jones, who is originally from the Bahamas, was still available when the Knicks made their selection. They liked Jones enough to even think about taking him at No. 11, but in one of the deepest NBA drafts in years were able to get him eight picks later.
The two rookies are far from perfect. Bouknight scored 18.7 points per game for Connecticut last season, but he was also a shooting guard who only shot 29% from 3-point range and averaged fewer than two assists per game. He created a lot of shots for himself; not so much for his teammates. To be fair, a lot of his teammates couldn’t shoot.
Jones is a springy rim-runner and has some defensive versatility, but his stats at Texas were humdrum (8.8 points, 4.8 rebounds per game) for a player with the sort of potential he possesses. And at 6-11 but only 218 pounds, he will need to get stronger to deal with the NBA’s biggest men underneath.
Still, this was a great draft for the Hornets. They got another shot creator in Bouknight and a big man with talent in Jones, while also trading to get Mason Plumlee (all that trade cost the Hornets was a lot of salary-cap flexibility). Charlotte has a better roster right now than it had at the end of last season, and that’s a start.
After Bouknight and Jones departed, Thor arrived for his own news conference. He wore a suit that was almost the exact shade of Hornets teal, although not quite. Thor, who played for Auburn last season, said he had already owned the suit before the draft, just because he liked the color. “It’s almost like it’s meant to be,” Thor said.
Maybe it is. On draft week, anyway, fans always like to think so.
Bouknight and Jones didn’t know each other until draft week, but they talked on a bus ferrying draft prospects around New York before they ever got picked and decided they liked each other. Hornets were 33-39 last season, their fifth straight losing year, so there is playing time to be had.
Showtime? Box office? Must-see TV?
All that sounds good, but it also can all be tossed in the category of pregame hype. Next we have to see these two first-rounders hold their own in the NBA. If they can — and I do think they can — the Hornets just got way more interesting. And more vertical.