Trading for a former NBA MVP? Drafting a 19-year-old 7-foot-1 center? Hornets GM talks as rumor mill heats up before NBA draft

By Richard Walker

As the Charlotte Hornets enter the final week of 2020 NBA Draft preparation, rumors are plentiful about the team’s options as general manager Mitch Kupchak met with the media by zoom news conference on Friday afternoon.

Does pursuing a trade for nine-time All-Star and 2017 NBA MVP Russell Westbrook make sense? What about all the rumors linking Charlotte to 7-foot-1 Memphis freshman center James Wiseman since most feel the Hornets’ position of need is center?

As should be expected, Kupchak wasn’t giving in to questions about any rumors.

About the recent Westbrook trade reports: “I can’t comment on other teams’ players. And I’ll take that position today. You’re seeing and you’ll see a lot of stories that get leaked. As you know, most of the time, they’re rumors that go nowhere. It’s the time of year it is right now. We’re active and we’re talking to teams and looking for ways to improve our team. But, obviously, I can’t comment on other teams’ players.”

On reports that Wiseman would be the choice based on a positional need, he said: “We are going to have to draft for the best player that we feel could be a 10-, 12-year starter in this league. And pretty much regardless of position. I think we’ve got a lot of players that are young…. But we need to upgrade every position.”

A rebuilding franchise that’s coming off a feel-good 23-42 record in the pandemic-shortened 2019-20 season got even better news when it moved up from No. 8 to No. 3 in August’s NBA draft lottery for its first round selection.

But as Kupchak has said ever since behind hired before the draft three years ago he’s determined to patiently rebuild through the draft; This year’s draft is Wednesday night.

“The third pick is a great place to be picking from,” Kupchak said. “We’re also excited about our 32nd pick. And then we’ve got the 56th pick. I do expect that we use all three picks. There’s lots of conversations about moving up, moving back. Not only with the third pick but also with the 32nd pick.”

The recent reports about acquiring Westbrook are intriguing if for no other reason than the 32-year-old Westbrook is one of the best players in the world.

But acquiring him from the Houston Rockets and new coach Stephen Silas (a former Hornets’ assistant) would be costly. It would almost certainly mean giving up a top young player on the roster, the No. 3 pick in the draft and possibly future draft picks.

And it also would likely eliminate the prospect of the Hornets pursuing free agents any time soon since the five-year, $205 million contract extension Westbrook signed with Oklahoma City in September 2017 before he was traded to Houston has $41.0 million left on it for this season, $43.85 million for 2021-22 and $46.66 million 2022-23.

Without Westbrook, Charlotte would enter the offseason with $21.01 million in cap space and has the final year of Nicolas Batum’s contract at $27.13 million coming off the books at the end of the year.

Wiseman, 19, was a five-star recruit who entered Memphis last season but played only one game – he had 28 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in 22 minutes of a 97-64 win over South Carolina State – before the NCAA ruled him ineligible for the rest of the year for receiving improper benefits from Tigers head coach Penny Hardaway.

A long and athletic 247-pounder, Wiseman is considered by many NBA scouts to be a future star.

But because of his limited collegiate experience, his draft projections have ranged from No. 1 to No. 11.

Other players linked to the Hornets in mock drafts have been Georgia freshman guard Anthony Edwards and international freshman guard LaMelo Ball, a former UCLA recruit who forsook college to play overseas.

“We’re not good enough right now to win a bunch of games and get into the playoffs and advance,” Kupchak said of the current state of the Hornets. “I’m not sure if that’s the case next year but it was the case this past year. And I did think we were playing our best basketball at the very end.”

A veteran general manager – Kupchak spent 32 years as an assistant general manager and general manager with the Los Angeles Lakers – he isn’t surprised the rumor mill has churned so much in recent weeks.

After all, it’s come during an unprecedented time for teams to scout and research potential draft picks and other players since so much of the interview process can’t be done in person.

“You know, some of the reports that are released are accurate and some of them aren’t,” Kupchak said. “But it is my job to take every call from every general manager. It is my job to look for opportunities to use our assets – which right now are our picks and our cap room flexibility – going forward.

“Does it make sense to add a big time veteran player? At first glance, you might say no. But it is my job to research every opportunity and if it’s something that I feel that needs to be pursued, I’ll pursue and take it to ownership.”