James Nnaji

Hornets Notes: Trades, Lowry, Bridges, Hayward, Williams, Nnaji

Entering the season, the Hornets felt they had a roster capable of contending for a playoff spot, but they’ve been plagued by injuries and have posted a disappointing 10-40 record. As Roderick Boone of The Charlotte Observer writes, president of basketball operations Mitch Kupchak said on Friday that he didn’t want to use those injuries as an excuse to run back a similar roster next season.

“We could say, ‘Listen, let’s sit pat, everything is going to be OK next year. We got the injury bug this year, so let’s just go through it and you get a good pick and you go from there,'” Kupchak said. “Your record says what you are. We’ve got 10 wins and to just sit and do nothing, we didn’t feel was the prudent thing to do.”

“(New Hornets owners) Rich (Schnall) and Gabe (Plotkin), they wanted to be aggressive. They didn’t want to sit and just assume this team is going to be healthy next year, so our feeling was to get out, balance the team better, add some veterans that’s going to help our younger players in the locker room. And more important or just as important, get assets that we can use to set ourselves up down the road.”

After dealing Terry Rozier to Miami in January, the Hornets made two more moves at the trade deadline, sending Gordon Hayward to Oklahoma City and P.J. Washington to Dallas in exchange for a handful of players and draft picks.

Kupchak is enthusiastic about how those deals will impact the direction of the team and pointed to the first-round picks acquired from Miami and Dallas as strong assets. The Heat’s 2027 first-rounder will be top-14 protected before becoming unprotected in 2028, while the Mavericks’ 2027 first-rounder is just top-two protected.

“A lot of times you get a pick and it’s protected one through 14, (then) one through 10. And then it goes to two second-rounders and there’s really not much upside,” Kupchak said. “Both of these picks have a tremendous amount of upside. We can wait it out and see how they play out in terms of where they end up as a number, and then we can draft a player. Or going forward you can use that pick to make a deal work. They are valuable picks.”

Here’s more on the Hornets:

  • There’s no buyout agreement in place with Kyle Lowry yet, but Kupchak is hopeful that there will be some sort of resolution on the veteran guard’s situation within the next 24 to 48 hours, per Boone.
  • After hanging onto Miles Bridges through the trade deadline, the Hornets are optimistic about their chances of re-signing him as an unrestricted free agent this summer, Boone writes. “I feel comfortable saying Miles has been with us, we drafted him and he’s certainly having a great year, getting better and better as the season goes along,” Kupchak said. “And I don’t see why we wouldn’t want him to be a part of this team for a long, long time.” Bridges, who was suspended by the NBA last April after reaching a plea deal on domestic assault charges related to a 2022 incident, will be back in court later this month as a result of more recent allegations.
  • According to Boone, there were many people in the Hornets organization who were privately frustrated by the number of games Hayward missed during his time with the team, as well as his “inability to play through the majority of his bumps and bruises.” While the veteran forward was effective when he played, turning the page on the Hayward era may be a good thing for the franchise, given how the past four years played out, Boone writes.
  • While the Hornets don’t expect the back injury that has sidelined center Mark Williams for the past two months to affect his career going forward, he’s not close to returning, per Kupchak. The plan is to reevaluate the big man in approximately four weeks. “I can’t say I expect him to play four weeks from now,” Kupchak said, according to Boone. “It’s taking longer than we thought and it’s not just a contusion where you get hit and you get a bruise. It’s a little bit more than that, and it’s just going to take some time for it to heal. … (But) he saw a specialist that’s supposed to be the best in the country recently and we expect 100% return to play.”
  • Kupchak is in Barcelona with assistant general manager Buzz Peterson to visit with draft-and-stash prospect James Nnaji, tweets Boone. Nnaji, 19, was the 31st overall pick in the 2023 draft and remains in Charlotte’s long-term plans.

Checking In On Unsigned 2023 Draft Picks

When he signed a two-way contract with the Grizzlies on Thursday, No. 45 pick overall pick GG Jackson became the 54th player selected in the 2023 draft to sign with his NBA team. Two of the 60 picks in this year’s draft were forfeited, which means there are just four players who have yet to sign NBA contracts.

As our tracker shows, those players are as follows:

  1. Charlotte Hornets: James Nnaji, C
  2. Washington Wizards: Tristan Vukcevic, F
  3. Indiana Pacers: Mojave King, G
  4. Memphis Grizzlies: Tarik Biberovic, G/F

It seems safe to assume we won’t see King and Biberovic in the NBA this season. Reports during or shortly after the draft indicated that they’ll be draft-and-stash prospects who will continue to hone their skills in international leagues while the Pacers and Grizzlies, respectively, control their NBA rights.

It’s possible that Nnaji and Vukcevic will take a similar path, but that has not yet been confirmed.

Speaking in July to Tony Canyameras of Mundo Deportivo (translation via Eurohoops), Nnaji said his expectation at that point was that he’d spend another season in Europe with FC Barcelona, but his future remained up in the air.

“We have to see how everything goes. The circumstances depend on what happens in the Summer League. But for now, I would say yes,” Nnaji said of returning to Barcelona.

The Hornets currently only have 13 players on guaranteed salaries for 2023/24, so they’d have room on their roster to add Nnaji if they want to.

But Frank Ntilikina, who has a $200K partial guarantee, looks like a good bet to be the 14th man, while JT Thor (non-guaranteed contract) and Theo Maledon (two-way RFA) are candidates for the 15th spot. So Charlotte has options and may prefer to wait a year on the 19-year-old Nnaji, who could use another developmental season in Spain.

As for Vukcevic, Christos Tsaltas of Sportal.gr (Twitter link) reported in mid-August that there’s a “strong possibility” the 42nd overall pick will remain with overseas for 2023/24. He’s under contract with Partizan Belgrade, though there were rumors in July that the Serbian club was considering loaning him to Greek team Peristeri BC.

Like Nnaji, Vukcevic isn’t locked into a plan for next season yet, but it would make sense for the 20-year-old to spend at least one more season in Europe, despite his desire to come stateside right away. The Wizards currently have 16 players on guaranteed contracts, so their standard roster is already pretty crowded. And they wouldn’t be permitted to sign him to a two-way deal if they were to buy him out from Partizan.

We’ll wait for further clarity on the plans for Nnaji and Vukcevic, but it’s possible that Jackson’s deal with the Grizzlies will be the last contract signed by a 2023 NBA draft pick before the ’23/24 season begins.

And-Ones: Summer League, McClung, Motiejunas, NBAGL Showcase

The Hornets‘ poor play was one of the worst parts of Las Vegas Summer League, writes John Hollinger of The Athletic.

Despite having eight players on the roster attending (and a ninth, James Nnaji, as one of a handful of remaining unsigned draft picks), Charlotte went 1-6 and was minus-55 overall. No one played particularly well, with Hollinger noting that the team may end up regretting not taking Scoot Henderson instead of Brandon Miller, if their brief Summer League performances were any indication.

Of more immediate concern for the Hornets are the fourth-year team option decisions on 2021 first-round picks James Bouknight and Kai Jones, which are due by late October. Neither looks like a sure bet to have his option picked up, as both players struggled in Vegas despite entering their third seasons, Hollinger adds. Bouknight’s option in 2024/25 is worth $6.1MM, while Jones’ is worth $4.7MM — not exactly team-friendly rates given they haven’t contributed much thus far.

Nnaji showed some defensive promise, but may be a draft-and-stash prospect while he develops his offensive game, says Hollinger.

Among the other players who struggled in Summer League were Pistons center James Wiseman (poor screening and defense), Nets first-rounder Noah Clowney (looked overmatched) and Lakers draft picks Jalen Hood-Schifino and Maxwell Lewis, according to Hollinger.

Here’s more from around the basketball world:

  • On the other end of the spectrum, Hollinger also revealed his under-the-radar Summer League standouts for The Athletic, including Javon Freeman-Liberty, who just agreed to a two-way deal with the Raptors, and Cavaliers guards Sam Merrill and Craig Porter Jr., the latter of whom went undrafted and signed a two-way contract with Cleveland. Hollinger says he would have given Merrill, whose contract for next season is non-guaranteed, the Summer League MVP award over Cam Whitmore.
  • Free agent guard Mac McClung, who finished last season on a two-way deal with the Sixers, tells Sean Deveney of Heavy.com he’s focused on making another NBA team, but he’s open to going to Europe if he can’t find a roster spot. “We’ll see,” McClung said. “I am in free agency right now, my agent is talking to some teams, back and forth. We’re just trying to evaluate what is the best situation for me. Hopefully, I will be in the NBA next year and finding my way.”
  • Former NBA big man Donatas Motiejunas has signed a two-year extension with AS Monaco Basket, the team announced (via Twitter). Donatas Urbonas of BasketNews.com had the scoop on Motiejunas’ extension (Twitter link). The 32-year-old spent six seasons in the NBA, ending with a brief stint with San Antonio back in 2018/19. He was productive on a per-minute basis for Monaco, which won France’s LNB Pro A and finished third in the EuroLeague playoffs.
  • In 2023/24, the NBA G League’s Winter Showcase event will be held in Orlando instead of Las Vegas, league sources tell Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports (Twitter link). The Showcase has been held Vegas for several years, but will be moving due to the NBA’s new in-season tournament, as the semifinals and final will be held in early December in Vegas.

Eight 2023 Draft Picks Have Yet To Sign NBA Contracts

Of the 58 players who were selected in last month’s draft, 50 have signed their first NBA contracts during the first two weeks they’ve been permitted to do so.

As our tracker shows, the breakdown is as follows:

  • First-round picks signed using the rookie scale exception: 29
  • Second-round picks signed using the new second-round pick exception: 13
    • Note: Of these 13 players, 12 received four-year contracts, while one (Rayan Rupert) signed a three-year deal.
  • Second-round picks signed to two-way contracts: 8

That leaves eight players from the 2023 draft class who have yet to sign with their respective NBA teams. Those players are as follows:

  1. Olivier-Maxence Prosper, Mavericks
  2. James Nnaji, Hornets
  3. Tristan Vukcevic, Wizards
  4. Sidy Cissoko, Spurs
  5. G.G. Jackson, Grizzlies
  6. Mojave King, Pacers
  7. Jordan Miller, Clippers
  8. Tarik Biberovic, Grizzlies

Not all of these players will sign an NBA contract in 2023/24. King and Biberovic are each expected to spend at least one season playing overseas before coming stateside. Vukcevic is another candidate to become a draft-and-stash prospect.

It’s also unclear whether the Hornets plan to sign Nnaji right away or let the 18-year-old big man continue developing his game in Europe. For now, Charlotte only has 12 players on guaranteed contracts for 2023/24, but depending on which restricted free agents (P.J. Washington, Theo Maledon) and players on non-guaranteed deals (JT Thor, Kobi Simmons) return, there might not be a spot for Nnaji, who remains under contract with FC Barcelona and – as a No. 31 overall pick who would require an international buyout – wouldn’t be a candidate for a two-way deal.

Prosper is the only unsigned first-rounder in this year’s class, but the delay doesn’t seem like anything to worry about. The Mavericks, who continued this past week to explore the trade market and consider how to fill out their roster, have taken their time getting around to signing a handful of players, with deals for free agents like Seth Curry and Dante Exum only becoming official on Friday. I’d expect Prosper’s contract to be finalized soon.

That leaves Cissoko, Jackson, and Miller, each of whom look like candidates to receive two-way contracts. Some of the other players drafted in their range, including No. 41 pick Amari Bailey and No. 46 pick Seth Lundy, have received two-way deals, and the Spurs, Grizzlies, and Clippers all have roster logjams, meaning there may not be room on their 15-man rosters for their unsigned second-rounders.

The Spurs will have 17 players on standard contracts once they officially re-sign Tre Jones and Sandro Mamukelashvili. The Grizzlies also have 17 players under contract and would have a full 15-man roster even if they trade or waive Josh Christopher and Isaiah Todd. The Clippers have 16 players on standard contracts (15 guaranteed). However, all three teams have at least one two-way slot available.

Hornets Notes: Washington, Bouknight, Nnaji, Smith

P.J. Washington is willing to consider accepting his qualifying offer if he can’t reach an agreement on a new contract with the Hornets, sources tell Sean Deveney of Heavy.com. Some progress has been made in negotiations, according to Deveney’s sources, but the team still hasn’t offered a number that would convince Washington to commit to a long-term deal. Accepting the $8.5MM QO would make him an unrestricted free agent in 2024.

Washington is the best player on our list of the top 50 free agents who remains unsigned. He reclaimed his role as a full-time starter last season and averaged a career-best 15.7 PPG in 73 games.

Teammate Miles Bridges accepted his $7.9MM qualifying offer after originally seeking a new deal starting at $20MM per season, so the Hornets could have more money than expected to offer Washington, Deveney adds. Charlotte might be reluctant to have both Washington and Bridges on the open market next summer, and Deveney points out that the new ownership group may also work in Washington’s favor.

There’s more on the Hornets:

  • James Bouknight has been spending a lot of time in the weight room as he tries to earn a spot in the team’s rotation, writes Roderick Boone of The Charlotte Observer. Bouknight was a lottery pick in 2021, but he h as only played in 65 combined games during his first two seasons. He hopes to impress the coaching staff with his approach to the game during Summer League. “I’m not going out there and trying to score 20 points, 30 points,” Bouknight said. “I’m just going out there and working on the stuff that we need to use during the season. Continue to be in the right spots on defense — whether it’s making the right pass, making the right decision. Just working on what we need during the year.” 
  • James Nnaji‘s debut was delayed while he awaited his international clearance from FIBA, Boone adds. The second-round pick missed Charlotte’s first three practices and its first game at the California Classic while waiting for the clearance to be approved. “It was frustrating because I thought FIBA could write it and give it right away,” Nnaji said. “But they were delayed the whole time, and it was out of my control.”
  • The Hornets feel fortunate that they were able to grab Nick Smith Jr. with the 27th pick after concerns about his knees caused him to slide, per Matt Ryan of The Charlotte Observer. Summer League head coach Marlon Garnett has been impressed with Smith’s work ethic. “I would much rather have a guy like that,” Garnett said, “that you have to tone down a little bit so he can channel all that energy and make sure he’s in the right place at the right time, that he’s not getting spread out in situations, than to have somebody who maybe comes off as really lazy and casual and you got to kind of like amp him up.”

Hornets Acquire No. 31 Pick James Nnaji

JUNE 28: The trade is now official, according to the Hornets (Twitter link).

JUNE 22: Having already traded down from No. 25 to No. 31, the Celtics are moving down again, according to Jake Fischer of Yahoo Sports (Twitter link), who reports that Boston is sending the first pick of the second round to the Hornets in exchange for Nos. 34 and 39.

Charlotte is using the No. 31 pick to draft Nigerian center James Nnaji, per Shams Charania of The Athletic (Twitter link).

Across 27 games of Liga ACB play with FC Barcelona during the 2022/23 season,  the 6’11” big man averaged just 4.9 PPG on 67.1% field goal shooting, along with 3.0 RPG and 0.7 BPG.

Clearly a longer-term project, the 18-year-old must have impressed Charlotte scouts with his athleticism and size. He boasts a 7’5″ wingspan. The Hornets have enjoyed an active draft thus far, headlined by the selection of Alabama small forward Brandon Miller with the second pick this season.

The Celtics, meanwhile, subsequently flipped the No. 34 selection to the Kings and then moved the No. 39 selection to the Hawks for future draft equity. Boston did acquire one rookie in the second round, Arkansas forward Jordan Walsh, with the No. 38 pick acquired in a deal with the Kings.

Draft Notes: Ausar Thompson, Nnaji, Hornets, Hawks, Wizards

Ausar Thompson pulled out of a scheduled workout with the Pacers on Friday, according to an Indianapolis Star story. No official reason was given, but it’s possible that the Overtime Elite star has received information that he’s likely to be selected before Indiana picks at No. 7. The article also suggests that Thompson may prefer to be drafted by a team picking later in the lottery.

The canceled workout doesn’t mean the Pacers wouldn’t consider Thompson if he’s still on the board, as he would provide a defensive boost to a team that ranked 29th in that category this season. The Star story notes that president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard is looking for a player with a “high ceiling” in the draft, and Thompson appears to fit that description.

Indiana holds five picks and has brought in more than 60 players during the pre-draft process. Most have been in group sessions, but projected lottery picks such as Thompson have been given individual workouts. The Pacers have already hosted Villanova’s Cam Whitmore, Houston’s Jarace Walker, Central Florida’s Taylor Hendricks and Kansas’ Gradey Dick.

There’s more on the draft:

James Nnaji, Tristan Vukcevic To Remain In Draft

Monday marks the final deadline for early entrants to withdraw their names from the draft and remain eligible for a future year. NCAA regulations required players to make their decisions by the end of May to retain their college eligibility, but international players have until 5:00 pm ET today to declare their intentions.

Several prominent prospects have opted to stay in the draft pool, according to ESPN’s Jonathan Givony.

That list includes James Nnaji, a Nigerian center projected to be taken in the latter part of the first round (Twitter link). Nnaji, who is 24th in ESPN’s latest ranking of the top 100 prospects, stands 6’11” with a 7’5″ wingspan.

He played this season for Barcelona, which is one of the best clubs in the EuroLeague. His team is still active in the Spanish ACB league playoffs, so Nnaji hasn’t been able to work out for any NBA teams yet.

Tristan Vukcevic, a 7’0″ center out of Serbia, will also stay in the draft (Twitter link). Vukcevic, who plays for Partizan Belgrade, made an impact during a scrimmage at last month’s draft combine by scoring 21 points in 17 minutes, Givony adds. He’s 35th on ESPN’s big board.

Sources have told Givony that Vukcevic hopes to come to the NBA right away, and teams that have expressed interest in drafting him have been informed that he doesn’t want to be stashed in Europe for another year (Twitter link). Vukcevic is hoping to be taken by a franchise that’s willing to pay his buyout fee and give him an immediate opportunity.

Nadir Hifi, whom Givony lists as one of the best available stash options, will also stay in the draft (Twitter link). The 6’3″ French point guard has already committed to play for Paris in the EuroCup next season and is ranked 72nd by ESPN.

Mantas Rubstavicius, who’s listed at 63rd on ESPN’s board, has elected to take his name out of the draft pool (Twitter link). The Lithuanian forward has signed with the New Zealand Breakers and hopes to improve his draft outlook for 2024.

NBA Reveals Players Expected At 2023 Draft Combine

The NBA has announced 78 players that are expected to attend this year’s draft combine, scheduled for May 15-21 at in Chicago, Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports tweets.

Additionally, a select number of standout players from the G League Elite Camp, which takes place May 13-14 in Chicago, will be invited to participate in the combine.

Players will have interviews with NBA teams and participate in five-on-five scrimmages, as well as shooting, strength and agility drills. Some top prospects opt out of the scrimmages.

Victor Wembanyama, the projected top pick, is not on the list. His French League season is still ongoing.

The list of invitees is as follows:

James Nnaji, Bilal Coulibaly Entering 2023 NBA Draft

Barcelona center James Nnaji has submitted the paperwork necessary to make himself eligible for the 2023 NBA draft, his agents, Gerard Raventos and Deirunas Visockas of YouFirst/Tandem Sports, tell Jonathan Givony of ESPN.

Nnaji is a projected first-round pick, currently ranked No. 24 on ESPN’s big board. According to Givony, Nnaji is the second-youngest player projected to be selected in June, as he won’t turn 19 years old until August.

Barcelona, which is currently atop the standings in the Spanish ACB league and ranks second in the EuroLeague, features several former NBA players on its roster, which is why Nnaji’s role has been modest. However, he is considered one of the top athletes in the class, standing 6’11” with a 7’5″ wingspan, Givony notes.

The young Nigerian only started playing basketball in 2016, Givony writes, making him something of a late bloomer. Barcelona’s season could extend into late June, so Nnaji’s agents are trying to work with the team so he can conduct interviews and workouts with NBA clubs, Givony adds.

Another possible first-rounder, French wing Bilal Coulibaly, is entering the draft, he tells Givony. Coulibaly is a teammate of projected No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama on Metropolitans 92, and is currently ranked No. 26 on ESPN’s board.

The NBA has always been a dream of mine, and now it’s a goal,” Coulibaly said. “It’s the natural next step in my evolution.”

Like Nnaji, Coulibaly is one the youngest players in the class — he turns 19 at the end of July. According to Givony, Coulibaly was a relative unknown as recently as last year, but he had an enormous growth spurt in the past couple years — going from 5’11” to 6’8″ — and has impressed scouts this season with his defense and guard skills.

As Givony writes, both players will have until June 12 to decide whether or not to keep their names in the draft — that’s the withdrawal deadline for international early entrants. Givony believes Coulibaly could be a potential top-10 pick in 2024 based on his upward trajectory.