Hornets 2020-21: How Michael Jordan’s longtime pursuit finally paid off and how LaMelo Ball is already impressing team officials

By Richard Walker

Coming off a 23-42 season in which they were playing their best basketball when the COVID-19 pandemic ended their year in mid-March, Charlotte top basketball executive Mitch Kupchak and coach James Borrego feel confident about the upcoming 2020-21 season.

After picking up four players in the draft and adding marquee free agent Gordon Hayward through a sign-and-trade, that excitement continues to grow.

Not enough to make any “playoff or bust” declarations, but optimistic hopes for sure.

Kupchak, Borrego and Hayward met with the media via zoom news conferences on Tuesday and each discussed their high hopes for the upcoming season after the Hornets added Hayward and rookies LaMelo Ball, Vernon Carey, Jr., Nick Richards and Grant Riller in the recent NBA Draft.

Said Kupchak: “I think we’ve upgraded the talent to our team. We’re hopeful to continue developing our young players.

Borrego: “We’re going to be competitive every single night. I’m not going to put a ceiling on what we can accomplish.”

And added Hayward: “I understand it’s going to be a process. But I love the potential in our younger guys.”

Among the revelations from the zoom news conferences were that Kupchak didn’t expect Hayward would choose the Hornets, Ball surprised team officials by doing a late night workout at the team’s facility just hours after eating dinner in Charlotte and Hayward said he never forgot the interest he was shown by Michael Jordan in 2014 and remains “star struck” to be in Jordan’s presence.

Both Kupchak and Borrego were surprised Hayward opted out of the final year of his four-year, $128 million contract with Boston for $34.37 million before signing a four-year, $120 million contract with Charlotte.

“I never had a good feeling,” Kupchak said of the team’s evening meeting with Hayward. “So I woke up (the next morning) and didn’t feel great. And by the end of the day, we had a deal.”

Ball surprised the team two days after he was drafted by asking to do a workout following dinner with team officials.

Kupchak said Ball asked around 9:30 p.m. if there was a place he could workout and get in some shooting practice and the team arranged for him to do so at the Hornets’ training facility; Ball worked out for two years and didn’t finish until 12:30 a.m.

“He wanted to be in the gym,” Borrego said of Ball. “If he continues with that mindset and spirit, the sky’s the limit.”

Hayward was first pursued by the Hornets in the summer of 2014 when he was a restricted free agent. Charlotte signed Hayward to a six-year, $63 million offer sheet on July 10 that was matched two days later by the Utah Jazz.

“I’ve never forgot the commitment and the potential Michael and the organization saw in me those many years ago,” Hayward said. “That was always in the back of my mind.”

Hayward, who chose the Hornets over other offers including one from his hometown Indiana Pacers, said his interactions with Jordan were memorable.

“Anytime you talk to Michael Jordan, you’re a little star struck,” Hayward said. “I think everyone feels that way a little bit. He texted me he’s wanted me for years now.
“Tough decisions were certainly made. I certainly look forward to this next chapter.”

Borrego sees the 6-foot-7 Hayward as the prototype for what NBA basketball has become in recent years.

“He’s a big guy who’s a playmaker,” Borrego said. “I value playmakers. We need those type of guys. He can play on the ball. He can play off the ball.”

Hayward, Ball and the other rookies will join a 20-player training camp roster that already includes top 2019-20 scorers Devonte’ Graham (18.2 average) and Terry Rozier (18.0), Miles Bridges (13.0), P.J. Washington (12.2), Cody Zeller (11.1) and Malik Monk (10.3) and top rebounders Zeller (7.1) and Bismack Biyombo (5.8).

Kupchak said the team is positioned to be successful this season and the future as it still has $4 million of NBA salary cap space left for this year and could create as much as $29 million for next season.

“We’re in a good place,” Kupchak said. “We’re trying to add to our talent base.”

The addition of Hayward gives the team a potential leader – both on an off the court.

“We need stability in the locker room,” Kupchak said. “To add a player like that to this young group was a move in the right direction.”

Among the late addition to the training camp roster was Duke’s Javin DeLaurier. A 6-foot-10 center from Shipman, Va., DeLaurier was a tri-captain for the Blue Devils last season and averaged 3.6 points and 4.0 rebounds in his 102-game career.

Hornets 2020 training camp roster

No. Player Pos. Ht. Wt.
2 LaMelo Ball G 6-7 181
8 Bismack Biyombo C 6-9 255
0 Miles Bridges F 6-7 225
22 Vernon Carey Jr.C 6-10 270
31 Keandre Cook G 6-5 187
30 Nate Darling G 6-5 200
12 Javin DeLaurier F 6-10 237
4 Devonte’ Graham G 6-2 185
20 Gordon Hayward F 6-7 225
10 Caleb Martin F 6-7 205
11 Cody Martin F 6-7 205
6 Jalen McDaniels F 6-10 205
1 Malik Monk G 6-3 200
14 Nick Richards F 6-11 247
7 Grant Riller G 6-3 190
3 Terry Rozier G 6-1 190
21 Xavier Sneed F 6-5 220
25 PJ Washington F 6-7 236
5 Kahlil Whitney F 6-6 210
40 Cody Zeller F/C 7-0 240