An infectious smile beaming from Kai Jones’ face as he sat on a podium flanking Charlotte Hornets GM Mitch Kupchak and new teammate James Bouknight pretty much summed up the environment waffling inside Spectrum Center on Friday afternoon.
“I’m ecstatic,” Jones said at an introductory press conference for the team’s draft selections. “I can’t wait to play. I put my jersey on as soon as I saw it.”
Jones is one of the two first-rounders selected by the Hornets in Thursday night’s draft, one that could be considered a success given the yield GM Mitch Kupchak & Co. pulled in. Charlotte also happily plucked James Bouknight off the board at No. 11, leaving the Hornets downright giddy since they were convinced he wouldn't be available once they went on the clock.
Factor in some potential depth with second-round picks JT Thor and Scottie Lewis to go along with the Hornets’ promising young core headlined by rookie of the year LaMelo Ball and it already has Bouknight salivating at the possibilities.
“We are going to be one of the most exciting teams in the league and I say that confidently,” Bouknight said. “We are going to be a team that's must-see TV as everybody likes to say. We are going to be fun to watch.”
He certainly didn’t get much argument from Jones.
“I feel like it’s perfect timing, us two young exciting guys," he said. "This team is on the rise and they’ve got really good young players like LaMelo who can pass the ball. So, I love running and James loves running, too. So it’s going to be showtime. I’m excited."
That thrill began percolating during the trip from their hotel in New York to the Barclays Center, site of the draft. The possibilities were already dancing in their heads.
“I never met James in person prior to the draft,” Jones said. “It’s crazy because on the way to Barclays, he was sitting in front of me on the bus and we were talking (like) it’s so great just to be here. And then at Barclays, we got to the arena and his table was right behind mine. So it’s crazy we ended up being teammates. But I think he’s a good scoring guard who’s going to attract a lot of attention from the defense and I know the he can pass the ball, too. And it seems like he likes to run. So it’s going to be fun. I can imagine him throwing the lob now. It’s going to be dope.”
Jones was someone the Hornets took a liking to during the pre-draft process, working him out twice. Kupchak kept his eye on him and swung a trade with the New York Knicks to acquire the 19th selection for a protected future first-round pick, using it to land the athletic 6-11 big man.
“We are happy he was there,” Kupchak said. “If he was not there we would not have made the deal.”
Thor could turn out to be a second-round gem. He’s an intriguing prospect with a 7-3 wingspan, just one of many attributes that may assist him in carving out his niche on the team.
“Great versatility on the defensive end and on the offensive end,” Thor said of his strong suits. “Effectively switching the pick-and-rolls, guarding 1-4, 1-5. On the offensive side, I know LaMelo, he's a great player and he's going to draw the crowds in. So I’m going to hit the corner shot, hit the wing shot, top of the key shot. Just keeping it real simple early on in my career."
Bringing Bouknight, Jones, Thor and Lewis on board paired with trading for Mason Plumee — a move that can’t become official until Aug. 6 so the Hornets can absorb him into salary cap space — allows Kupchak to begin retooling their offseason roster and plug glaring holes. Free agents Bismack Biyombo and Cody Zeller aren’t expected back, and although the Hornets could make Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk restricted free agents if they extend qualifying offers to each, they both may be able to score more lucrative deals elsewhere.
Consider their collection of drafted players a mixture of insurance and depth. Both are important at this point.
"By adding the talent — and we got talent at two positions that we could use some help at," Kupchak said. "We have two free agents in Cody and Bismack. So clearly we need somebody in the front court, right? And we’ve made some moves to improve that. We’ve also got similar situations in the back court. So as it turns out, we ended up drafting two players at positions we need help. Now, how often do rookies actually make a contribution? I can’t sit here and say, 'Well, he's going to play 20 minutes and he’s going to play a minute.' That’s up to them and that’s up to the coach.
“But I feel we did add to our talent base. The other players that are (not up on the podium) they are going help us as well with building a deeper and better team. They are young. We’ve added some veterans, but they are young players that we are going to have the ability to work with for a couple of years and develop."
It’s not like the new guys should need much more motivation, but just in case, all they have to do is look across the locker room or court at the 19-year-old who made a big splash during his initial season in the league. Knowing they will likely be in the spotlight playing alongside Ball, the person who took home the hardware as the league’s top first-year player, could serve as a perfect dangling carrot of sorts.
“It’s a lot of inspiration,” Jones said. “I feel like if your mind isn't set on being rookie of the year, you are already thinking wrong coming into the NBA. So that’s where my head’s at and that’s something I want to do and help win a lot of games, too. And that will led to that I feel like. I’m sure James feels the same way.”
“For me, I’m not going to sell myself short,” Bouknight said. "I want to contend for rookie of the year. I think I’m that type of caliber of player. And it’s definitely an inspiration. Seeing Melo and having a lot of young guys on this team, me, Kai and JT, and having Scottie with us. Like I said before we box office. This is going to be fun.”