What the Hornets are planning to do in the draft, and how they hope to find a center

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Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak said Monday that he won’t hunt for a center in the 2021 NBA draft, and will instead draft the best available player.

That’s the same MO he used last year when the Hornets took LaMelo Ball in the first round to add to an already crowded guard lineup — drafting for talent rather than positional need.

The Hornets have the 11th pick in Thursday’s draft, which gives them less flexibility than they had in 2020 when they had the No. 3 pick and chose Ball, who became the NBA’s Rookie of the Year.

But Kupchak added that he’s confident the Hornets will still be able to add a talented player at No. 11.

“At 11, quite frankly you’re probably going to end up with someone who is 18 or 19,” he said in a Zoom call with reporters. “There is a player or two that are four-year guys that would be considered at 11.

“But if it is a young player, we’d like that player to be a talented player with great character that would fit into what we’re trying to build here in Charlotte.”

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor has the Hornets picking former Texas forward Kai Jones with the 11th pick in his latest mock draft. Jones, who is 6-foot-11, 218 pounds, averaged 8.8 points per game and 4.8 rebounds as a sophomore at Texas last season.

“Jones may not be able to contribute early in his career, but he’d make for a fascinating future pick-and-roll partner with LaMelo Ball,” O’Connor wrote. “Jones brings raw perimeter skill that could be worth taking a big swing on.”

Jones, who is from Nassu, Bahamas, has drawn comparisons to JaVale McGee and Christian Wood. He had an individual workout with the Hornets on July 18.

Jones said he’d be a good fit with the Hornets’ up-and-down style, adding that he and LaMelo playing together would be like “Showtime.”

“My ability to play defense, protect the rim and guard guards out on the perimeter, and also step out and shoot 3s and finish above the rim makes me a perfect modern-day big,” he said.

The Hornets finished 33-39 during the 2020-21 season and barely missed the playoffs. In March, they were fourth place in Eastern Conference standings before LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward suffered injuries that caused them to miss significant time.

The Hornets lost 15 of their final 20 games and finished 10th in the Eastern Conference standings before losing to the Indiana Pacers in the play-in game.

“We’re still at that level where we’ve got to add talent to this team,” Kupchak said. “We played pretty well last year. But we had a couple of injuries. Melo went down. Gordon went down and we plummeted. Our performance. To me, that’s just because — we’re not deep enough to be able to sustain an injury or two.

“And in this league, you have to assume you’re going to have an injury or two.”

The Hornets also struggled to get consistent production from their two centers — Cody Zeller and Bismack Biyombo, who are both free agents. Zeller averaged 9.4 points, 6.8 rebounds and 0.4 blocks in 48 games and 21 starts. Biyombo averaged 5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 66 games and 36 starts.

“We don’t know what the future holds for them,” Kupchak said. “Do they want to come back here? I think they do. And then there is a marketplace that has to be considered.”

“So if you just look at a depth chart, it’s clear to see ... there’s a need there. Having said that, P.J. Washington did play some center last year. There aren’t too many centers in the draft. We’re not going to hunt a center.”

LiAngelo Ball to tryout with Hornets

Kupchak confirmed that LiAngelo Ball, older brother of LaMelo Ball, could join the Hornets’ summer league team.

He said in early August the Hornets will have four days of practice and will bring in 18 to 20 players. LiAngelo is one of those players. He said if LiAngelo plays well, then he’ll get an invite to go to Las Vegas, where the Summer Leagues games are held.

Kupchak said the plan is to bring 12 or 14 players to Las Vegas.

Players were allowed to workout at the Hornets facilities and bring one partner. For LaMelo Ball, that was LiAngelo, and Kupchak said he got a chance to watch LiAngelo scrimmage.

“I’m sure Melo appreciates it – he’s got a guy that he can hang out with and come to the gym with and rebound and shoot,” Kupchak said. “So, it’s been good for him and he’s a Division I player. He was a player that was recruited and played for UCLA.

“He’s a real talent. Whether he’s good enough right now, that remains to be seen, but he’s fitting right in on the scrimmages that we play on Tuesdays and Thursdays. And yeah, we’ll bring him to that four-day camp and we’ll go from there.”

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