Charlotte Hornets face an NBA draft appetizer, then the main course 10 days later

The weirdest, truest thing Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak told reporters last week when he was talking about Thursday’s NBA draft was this:

“We’re not exactly sure what our needs are at this time.”

Say what?

At first listen, that sounded like a guy managing the local grocery store who has no idea whether or not he’s about to run out of milk. Isn’t that your job? To know what you need?

And yet Kupchak really doesn’t know, and he knows that he doesn’t know, and it’s refreshing that he’s not pretending to know. You know?

That’s because in the NBA, the draft comes first, and then 10 days later, here comes free agency and all its chaos.

In the NFL, it works the other way – first you get free agency starting in March, and everyone gets an idea of much milk they need. And then here comes the draft in late April and you’ve got seven rounds to buy all the milk you want. At cheap prices, too. Of course, some teams turn out to be lactose intolerant, but that’s another story.

As for the Hornets in 2019, though … The top scorer in franchise history, the best player to ever wear the Hornets uniform, the team’s captain and its conscience – oh, you get it, I’m talking about Kemba Walker.

Kemba Walker, shown while scoring 43 points in April in what may have been his final game with the Charlotte Hornets, will become an unrestricted free agent June 30th. Jeff Siner

When free agency begins the last day of the month, Walker either will take more money to stay in Charlotte (he’s eligible for a staggering amount, as much as $221 million over five years) or he will leave for championship-caliber pastures elsewhere. Those pastures won’t actually be as green, if you’re counting the actual dollars. But it’s the sort of decision that will probably determine if Walker ever earns an NBA championship ring of his own or if he just glances wistfully at team owner Michael Jordan’s from time to time.

And it is that decision from Walker – not anything that occurs Thursday night – that will determine the course of the Hornets’ immediate future.

So understandably, Kupchak is operating in an odd environment. The Hornets also may lose another fairly strong NBA player – wing Jeremy Lamb also is an unrestricted free agent and probably can command more money elsewhere.

Lamb, though, is someone who can be replaced. Walker can’t – not without a significant drop-off.

So Kupchak and his crew are trying to juggle all this right now. The Hornets own the 12th, 36th and 52nd pick in this draft, and they’re trying to move into the top 10, and they have brought in close to 100 NBA draft prospects to do their due diligence.

“The draft is going to be at least eight days prior to free-agency (actually 10). I’m not sure that they’re going to be correlated,” Kupchak said. “Certainly, we’re going to think about the what-ifs: ‘What if we don’t sign this player back? What if we don’t sign that player back?’ But once again, I think we’ll hopefully be in position just to take the best player.”

It’s very difficult to predict who the Hornets will chooseThursday, because I think there’s a better than even chance they don’t even keep the 12th pick when all is said and done. So I won’t try. But I will say it’s all an appetizer in a progressive meal that will take at least 10 days to finish, likely more. The Hornets will have some new players by midnight Thursday, and they will say they are excited about those players, and that’s all well and good.

But the really big decision comes when free agency starts June 30th at 6 p.m., and Hornets fans find out in one “Will-he-or-won’t-he-stay” swoop if this year’s Hornets team and maybe the next 2-3 beyond that – will be any good or not.

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