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A Late Round Flier

The talent-hungry Hornets pick late in the second round, and the chance at a contributor is slim.

It’s hard to justify spending too much thought in the draft process as an outsider on the 55th pick. Not only is the player less than likely to make the roster in the first place (In the last ten drafts, only 48 of the 100 players picked between 51 and 60 have ever seen an NBA minute), those players that do make the roster tend to be filler guys that wash out of the league quickly. In fact, looking at the names of players drafted in that range should tell you about what outcomes you’re looking at in that range: Isaiah Thomas is the 1% outcome. Guys like Patty Mills, E’twaun Moore, that’s your 5% range. But after that, it just craters. The average result (And remember, we’re only looking at the half of players drafted in this range that actually do make the league, making this the 75th percentile overall) is something like Ognjen Kuzmic, Sasha Kaun, or Semaj Christon. Guys who didn’t play, and when they did, they were terrible.

And then there’s just how little esteem GMs themselves give the picks in that range. Phil Jackson used his last draft pick of his Knicks tenure at #58 last year on a guy named Ognjen Jaramaz. Jaramaz was a distant fourth best NBA prospect on his own team, and while Vlatko Cancar had been drafted at 49th, Jaramaz was drafted ahead of Alpha Kaba, who was generally assumed to be a better prospect (Kostja Mushidi, the best prospect of the four, withdrew before the early entry withdrawal deadline). Then he got to summer league and predictably bombed. Like miserably bombed — he shot 7% from the field, turned the ball over constantly, couldn’t guard his position worth a thing without fouling, so he went right back to his European team in Mega Leks. Where he is now the fifth best prospect on his own team. He’s hardly the only guy that never had a chance to see the league being taken that far back either. The Mavericks taking Satnam Singh a few years back as an attempt to break into the Indian market rings out there too. Or the Knicks again, taking Thanasis Antetokounmpo for reasons I’m still not clear on.

However, the Charlotte Hornets, owners of the 55th pick, are ill-suited to follow the same path as the rest of the league here. They are a team that can’t sit pat this offseason, because of their current situation relative to the luxury tax, which will put them in the tax even if they sign their first-round draft pick and fill out the rest of the roster with rookie minimum contracts only. And that forces them to possibly forfeit the diamond in the rough of this season in Restricted Free Agent Treveon Graham.

Given the number of teams that won’t want to take on too much salary, whatever moves they do make may only be able to clear small amounts of space, and any space they do clear will likely be used adding larger rotation pieces. In order to compete for those large pieces against the rest of the league, the Hornets may have to give every bit of money they can, and that will force cuts in salaries in other places. Filling out the end of the bench with a rookie minimum guy rather than a veteran with two years or more of experience adds nearly a million extra to the contracts they can offer the big pieces, so the Hornets will almost certainly need to sign at least one rookie minimum, and resource-wise it makes more sense to have that come from your second round pick.

But the Hornets’ deep second round pick isn’t just made interesting by the player’s likelihood to make the roster. The Hornets, despite having been bad last year, have a lot of guys that are under contract and firmly entrenched in their positions. They’re already playing poor Frank Kaminsky out of position for nearly 100% of his minutes because they have three other centers under contract. Malik Monk couldn’t find minutes outside of the point guard spot, which was unnatural for him, because this team had six different wings that can not play the power forward consistently, with five of them under contract for next year and a sixth in restricted free agency.

All of that doesn’t even include other potential smaller factors, like how the organization and fanbase are both extremely fond of player development (It was the big buzzword in the most recent Charlotte Observer interview with Curtis Polk, who is a part owner and close confidante of owner Michael Jordan to the extent that he probably has an undue level of influence on basketball decisions), such that younger guys will be cheered on relentlessly if they look even halfway competent. Or how the roster could easily be reshuffled midseason to create additional pathways to minutes.

As a result, a draftee has a bunch of reasons to want to come to Charlotte at 55 relative to the other teams in the area. Philadelphia and Phoenix both are almost certain to not have a roster spot. OKC has no reason to play a rookie draftee without some luck given that they’re an almost guaranteed tax team unless they make some active deals. But, in Charlotte’s case, while they’re an attractive destination on the basis of offering the best chance to actually reach the NBA for that one fringe prospect, there’s an awkward positional sieve applied, which deforms the pool of candidates in a weird way. And then, beyond that, this slot in the draft is a weird one because it would not surprise me at all to hear that a team would rather have their client go undrafted and control their choice of team as an undrafted free agent than be selected to a specific team that might not be a perfect fit. Alternatively, several guys in that range might anticipate being draft-and-stashes.

Which is a lot of words to say that that one pick, despite looking inconsequential and belonging to a team that slips a little under the radar at times, actually is one of the most interesting ones in the draft to project because of how extreme some of the circumstances surrounding this Hornets roster are. There’s both a narrow pool of guys that are in a situation to be drafted, and a pool that the Hornets can actually fit onto the roster. But in that overlap, there’s potential for success above the expected in this range of the draft.

So then let’s look at a few guys that actually make sense within those confines.

Kevin Hervey

You’re going to see a lot of players compared to Kyle Kuzma this year, even ones who have no business being described as such. Hervey, however, actually deserves the comparisons, both positive and negative. He has the face-up off-the-dribble finesse game that defined Kuzma as a prospect. He has the same solid frame, at 6’9”, 230, with a slightly over 7’ wingspan. He even has the same questions about his game that Kuzma did: If he is to project as a stretch-four, why did he shoot such a poor percentage from the three-point line in spite of seemingly good mechanics? Hervey also has the athleticism to slide down and guard the occasional small forward, which could be an added bonus for the Hornets. Overall, Hervey may not get immediate minutes, since the Hornets may continue playing Frank Kaminsky out of position at power forward, but in the long run plans, the Hornets have wide open space at both starting and backup power forward that he can absolutely earn.

Robert Franks

If Hervey’s biggest question is whether his shot will translate, with everything else as a solid positive, Franks might be the exact opposite, where we aren’t exactly sure of anything except his shot. We’re not sure he can attack closeouts, though just over 68% at the rim would certainly indicate he can, in spite of how clumsy his finishing looked at times. We’re not sure he can make the extra pass, though turning the ball over more often than he assisted a basket would indicate that he can’t. Heck, we’re not even sure what his frame is, because the last measurements we have for him were of a freshman that was reported to still be growing (And at that point he was already 6’7” with a 7’2” wingspan allegedly). But even if all of those questions come up with “no” as the answer, Franks is the current Washington State record holder for three point baskets made in a game. And in case you forgot, Klay Thompson went to Washington State.

Kerwin Roach

Roach has a pretty strong case as the best pure athlete in the draft, having been a two-time state triple jump champion in Texas. When he was a freshman at Texas, a video of him touching the top of the backboard went viral. Add in that he has good defensive instincts as demonstrated in college, and shot 39.5% from beyond NBA three-point range, and you have a solid 3-and-D player that could easily pair with Malik Monk as the two backup guards of the near future. But he’s not without his issues. Roach, for all his athleticism, is not that long and is extremely light. He has a similar wingspan to Malik Monk, at around 6’5”, and is believed to weigh only 160 pounds. For comparison, 5’9” Isaiah Thomas is listed at 185 pounds. Still, while he may not have the physical profile to pair with Monk, the skillset is there, and that may make him a sufficiently good fit.

Georgios Kalaitzakis

If Kerwin Roach is the athlete without the physical tools, Kalaitzakis is the physical tool guy without quite all the athletic gifts. Standing 6’7” with a 7’1” wingspan, Kalaitzakis still has the foot speed to guard the usual point guards, as well as switch all the way up to some power forwards. He is extremely fluid for a guy his size, so while he is not the most explosive of athletes, he is a great candidate to play next to the smaller Monk. But if you were listing reasons to choose Kalaitzakis, his size creating defensive potential would probably not make the top 2. Kalaitzakis is one of the best shooting prospects in Europe right now, with an extremely clean one-motion release, as well as phenomenally consistent footwork getting into shots off the dribble. Further, Kalaitzakis is extremely effective at using his size to see over the defense and find passing lanes such that he can be the primary initiator for an offense.

De’Anthony Melton

Melton is a third potential point guard in this slot, and while the lost season at USC complicates what we know for certain about him, we do know a few things. He has the physical tools, measuring out at 6’3” with a 6’8” wingspan, both excellent for a point guard, but he also has the athletic tools too, as a good jumper with great quickness. If you were to only look at his non-scoring abilities, Melton would likely be a first-round pick, as he does several things at a high level. He’s an excellent and willing passer, a great rebounder for a guard, and one of the best defenders in this class with the tools to translate it. But scoring is a thing, and shooting is even more of a thing, and in the modern NBA, it’s hard to justify a point guard who shot 28.4% from the three-point line in college. This deep into the second, however, it starts to make more sense to make a bet on the “cleaned up form” that the player showcased in workouts. Melton, if he can make the occasional wide open jumper, is a huge positive, and so he might make sense to pair with Monk as well.

Ultimately, there’s no way of knowing exactly how Mitch Kupchak will end up using the pick. The Hornets’ first-round selection might throw a specific target off of the board. The Hornets might find a way to trade a few of the wings they currently have on the roster and take another smaller wing. Even a draft-and-stash isn’t off the table if the team wants to make a few splashier signings on the veteran minimum. But in most of the more conservative offseason scenarios, which the team looks poised to have, that pick will be an important part of building the end of the bench, and as shown, the Hornets have a few good candidates available to them.

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