- David Thorpe, ESPN Staff Writer
In 2006, fortune smiled on the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks. Mired in nearly two decades of mediocrity, the Blackhawks were blessed with two top picks in the 2006 and 2007 NHL entry drafts. With those two picks, the Blackhawks drafted two future All-Stars in Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. By 2010, Toews and Kane had led Chicago to its first Stanley Cup championship since 1961.
Thanks to the blockbuster Chris Paul trade in December, the New Orleans Hornets netted what was originally the Timberwolves' unprotected first-round pick. With that, the Hornets have the opportunity to land two franchise-changing players with two likely lottery picks in the 2012 draft. The 2012 draft class is considered deep and talented. The 2012 picks would join a Hornets team that already is built with three recent high lottery picks plus a late first-rounder who held his own as a rookie last season.
If they luck into good positions in the draft lottery and select well, an NBA championship might be on the Hornets' horizon down the road. Current draft-eligible players New Orleans should target based on its current composition are Kentucky's Anthony Davis, Kansas' Thomas Robinson, Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, Washington's Tony Wroten, and North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and John Henson, who could help address at least two of three Hornets problems:
Problem 1: Two ineffective small forwards
Shooting guard Eric Gordon is by far the best of the three young lottery talents the Hornets currently have on the team. However, the two other players, small forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry, have yet to establish themselves. Aminu started last season on fire from the 3-point line, but once his shot stopped falling he produced very little. He's a super-long and agile big man who could be a perfect 4, as he can be electric attacking bigs or any time he has the ball in the paint. Instead, since it is easier to float outside as a small forward, he chooses to float on the perimeter far more than he should and often looks indifferent to defending.
Henry remains a mystery; he's done so little in the NBA thus far. Big and strong with a nice stroke, he potentially could play both wing positions. It's also possible he's unplayable and will spend most of this season in the D-League. Henry was soundly beaten out last season by converted power player Sam Young. Neither Aminu nor Henry guarantees the Hornets won't take a small forward in this year's draft.
Enter Anthony Davis.
Like almost every other team, New Orleans would love to have Davis, but better than most the Hornets have good ability to help Davis reach his potential. Under head coach Monty Williams, the Hornets always will be a defense-first team, one that defends important areas on the floor and tries to force teams to shoot over arms (as opposed to teams more focused on creating chaos). Davis, therefore, will be challenged not to just rely on his reach and bounce to be an effective defender, but to learn his rotation duties and to get to his "spots" quickly. This will make him more effective as a defender and help him block more shots.
If the Hornets get Davis, the need for power forwards like Thomas Robinson or John Henson is mitigated. But Sullinger is another matter. Carl Landry is probably the most underrated frontcourt player in the NBA, capable of scoring in the post, on drives, from the perimeter and on the free throw line. Sullinger would give the Hornets a second post scorer and an extra big body in a league that covets both.
Problem 2: The missing point guard
The biggest hole for the Hornets, as expected, is the one created by Paul's trade to L.A. Jarrett Jack is a solid player and someone who can run a team, but looking forward he's probably best utilized as a veteran presence off the bench. Greivis Vasquez played very well at times last season. However, he, too, likely profiles as a career backup point guard.
So the Hornets might look to Tony Wroten Jr. with their second overall pick (provided it is not in the top seven or so). If Wroten, a freshman, enters the NBA draft, he presents an ideal candidate for New Orleans as a pick outside the top seven, as he projects as the top point guard in this draft class.
To be sure, he's dynamic at both scoring and passing, but needs lots of development. Drafting Wroten, while keeping two veteran point guards like Jack and Vasquez, would give the Hornets the requisite time to properly develop Wroten. Another thing to consider: Wroten is very long and has good size and could guard most NBA shooting guards. So he would pair well with Gordon. Certainly Wroten still has some work to do at Washington this season to solidify himself as a lottery selection. My guess is the Hornets are hoping he does.
Problem 3: The injury-prone shooting guard
Certainly the prize of the Chris Paul trade was the acquisition of Gordon. He is a proven slasher/shooter who could be the top scorer on any future Hornets team. Gordon, though, has not proved to be even remotely durable in his young career, so New Orleans should consider a top shooting guard, if one is available, as a contingency to any Gordon injury.
Barnes would fit that billing, as someone who initially could help fill in for Gordon when injured, as well as force Aminu and Henry to improve and develop. A starting lineup of Gordon and Barnes on the wing would be formidable in time. Barnes has shown his ability to score from the perimeter and has the skills to penetrate and create his own shot, though he has not been asked to do so this season on a stacked Tar Heels team.
Of course, having two high draft picks never guarantees good players. To be sure the Hornets have some homework to do and things can change between now and draft day in July. Indeed, in 2001, another Chicago team, the Chicago Bulls, also had two high draft picks and laid the foundation of its future squarely on the shoulders of high schoolers Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry, a decision that produced exorbitantly poor results.