Surprise pick, trades highlight Hornets strong draft

Noah Vonleh (with NBA commissioner Adam Silver) was the second consecutive player from Indiana drafted by Charlotte.

Brad Penner/Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Hornets went into the 2014 NBA Draft looking to dramatically improve their team considering they had the No. 9 and No. 24 draft picks. They feel like they did so in spades with whom they selected.

With their first pick, the Hornets took 6-foot-10 forward Noah Vonleh, who was the Big 10 Freshman of the Year after averaging 11.3 points and a conference-high 9.0 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game.

At No. 24, the Hornets drafted UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, a great shooter who led the Huskies to the NCAA Championship, but traded him to Miami for its pick at 26, this year’s 55th overall pick and a 2019 second round pick.

Two picks later at 26, Charlotte got P.J. Hairston, a 6-5 shooting guard and Greensboro, N.C., native that was one of the best pure shooters in the draft. But he comes with some baggage after he was essentially kicked out of North Carolina for violating NCAA rules receiving impermissible benefits from outside sources.

Hairston played last season with the Texas Legends of the NBA Developmental League, where he averaged 21.8 points in 26 games.

In a normal draft, neither one of these players would have been available for Charlotte to pick at their spots.

"Today was a great day for the Hornets," said Charlotte general manager Rich Cho. "They both are very good players and will add something."

Vonleh was a surprise pick because most draft prognosticators felt he’d be taken as high as No. 5 and wouldn’t be available for the Hornets. Even Vonleh himself was caught off guard by what transpired and where he wound up.

"I was a little surprised because I didn’t work out for (the Hornets), so it was a little bit of a shock," said Vonleh. "I think they talked to my agent and said they were interested but they didn’t think I’d fall to nine. I think they were surprised, but it all worked out pretty well." 

When he fell into the lap of Charlotte at No. 9, he was too good to pass up. Cho said there was zero hesitation on the team’s part to draft him.

An estimated crowd of 4,000 at Time Warner Cable Arena watched the pick announced on the scoreboard screen and jumped to their feet and cheered loudly for some 20 seconds after Vonleh’s name was announced. There was a small smattering of boos from fans that wanted to see the team select Creighton forward Doug McDermott. 

Those that paid attention to Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford leading up to the draft likely weren’t surprised by the selection of Vonleh at No. 9 as opposed to an outside shooter. He loves size and believes the easiest way to advance through the playoffs is with a team full of size. 

By taking Vonleh, the Hornets now have the potential to form a very solid inside tandem in All-NBA player Al Jefferson. Add last year’s No. 4 draft pick Cody Zeller to that mix and the Hornets feel they are putting together a formidable inside presence.

"We had him rated a lot higher," said Cho. "For whatever reason he slipped to nine. We were ecstatic when he was there."

Vonleh is listed by scouts as excelling at rebounding, running the court, being able to score with both hands and a solid perimeter shooter. The only negative is his need to gain strength and size.

He played point guard well into his high school career and shot 48.5 percent from 3-point range in college, but Indiana head coach Tom Crean received criticism for the way he did and didn’t use him offensively.

"I think he used me … where he thought I’d be best and help the team win," said Vonleh. "I adjusted pretty well to where he put me. I wouldn’t say it worked out because we didn’t make any (postseason) tournaments."

While Hairston has the talent of a lottery player, the selection of him comes with some trepidation. Besides the NCAA violations, he was also charged with misdemeanor marijuana possession, but later had the charge dropped after completing a drug assessment class.

"We’re aware of all the issues," said Cho. "We had an interview with him in Chicago at the draft combine and we’re comfortable with the situation."

Going into the draft, it was imperative Charlotte draft at least one player that could shoot from the outside with regular consistency. The Hornets have one of the worst shooting backcourts and teams in the NBA from long range.

Hairston immediately improves that.

"P.J. is one of the best shooters in the draft," said Cho. "We’ve followed him for a long time. He’s a guy that really fills a need for us."

In the second round, Charlotte traded away their No. 45 pick, 6-11 forward Dwight Powell out of Stanford and center Brendan Haywood, who has a guaranteed $2 million salary, to Cleveland for Alonzo Gee, who has an unguaranteed salary, per reports. The Hornets are expected to cut him immediately.

Charlotte finished its night by taking Semaj Christon, a First-Team All-Big East point guard out of Xavier at No. 55, and then reportedly traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder for cash considerations.