Hornets eager for new season, upcoming No. 3 overall pick

By Richard Walker

It’d be hard to find an NBA organization happier about a 23-42 season than the Charlotte Hornets.

Much of it has to do with the lower than low expectations most had for the team when the season started, largely due to the franchise’s decision to allow its all-time leading scorer Kemba Walker to leave through a sign-and-trade deal with the Boston Celtics.

Instead, a youthful Hornets’ roster with 10 players that had five or less years of NBA experience played hard virtually every night and even pulled off some surprising results before the COVID-19 pandemic ended the season on the night of arguably Charlotte’s best victory.

The NBA season came to an end the day after the Hornets’ 119-98 win at eventual NBA runner-up Miami on March 11. It was a game which Charlotte rallied from a 20-point deficit to record the 21-point victory. The rally was the 11th in team history from a deficit of 20 or more on the road.

“We had some momentum,” Charlotte coach James Borrego told Fox Sports Southeast. “We lost a lot of momentum and a lot of development opportunities.”

The Hornets’ frustration grew even more when the NBA decided in July to restart its season in August with 22 of the league’s 30 teams.

The teams that weren’t allowed to compete for the NBA’s 16 playoff berths in Orlando as league officials quarantined players, coaches and referees in Orlando, Fla., were unflatteringly called the “Delete Eight” by many national observers.

But the Hornets and the other seven teams whose seasons ended in mid-March were eventually allowed to hold their own quarantined mini-camps.

For Charlotte, that meant three weeks of on-court and off-court activities that general manager Mitch Kupchak and Borrego and his staff hoped would continue the team’s development.

“They couldn’t take all 30 teams or didn’t think that it was appropriate to do so,” Borrego said of the NBA’s decision. “But we made the most of our opportunity. It was better than expected. When we broke camp, a lot of people didn’t want to leave. It was that fun.”

Borrego called the mini-camp what “training camps used to be” in the way of the individual-improvement and chemistry-building drills that were used.

Players like Miles Bridges agreed.

“Everybody’s getting better,” Bridges said. “You could tell people have been working hard on their individual games.”

Bridges is one of the key building blocks for a team that devoted lots of playing time to rookies P.J. Washington, Cody Martin, Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels, second-year players Bridges and Devonte’ Graham, third-year players Malik Monk and Dwayne Bacon, fourth-year player Willy Hernangomez and fifth-year player Terry Rozier III.

Graham and Rozier finished as the team’s leading scorers with averages of 18.2 and 18.0 points, respectively.

Seventh-year player Cody Zeller led in rebounds at 7.1 per game. And Graham was tops in assists with a 7.5 average.

“It was good for us as a team to get back together,” Graham said of the mini-camp. “You’re just trying to get that chemistry back together.”

Now the Hornets can focus on improving their roster in the Nov. 18 NBA Draft.

Charlotte was a big lottery winner as the team’s first round selection improved from 8th to 3rd. It marked the first lottery draft improvement in franchise history since 1999 when the Hornets moved up from 13th to choose 3rd. In that draft, Charlotte selected eventual two-time NBA All-Star Baron Davis.

“For us, it was a jolt for our organization,” Borrego said of the lottery’s draft pick improvement. “I trust our management team that we’re going to find a guy that fits our program and improves our team.”

Charlotte chooses No. 3 overall in the first round and has the Nos. 32 and 56 picks in the second round.