The Unsung Biggest Winner of the NBA Draft

By: 06.25.10  •  15 Comments

Chris Paul (photo. Zach Wolfe)

First impressions can be misleading if you don’t wait around for the conclusion. Ask anybody who’s been swindled by a con artist, or watched the promising first half-hour of Jeepers Creepers before enduring the colossally terrible rest of the movie. Ask Kobe Bryant after the first three quarters of Lakers/Celtics Game 7 before he took over the fourth: What you thought you saw at first can look completely different at the end of the day.

That’s what I thought when the dust settled and I realized what the New Orleans Hornets had accomplished in last night’s NBA Draft.

At first, when the Hornets surprised me by taking Cole Aldrich with the 11th pick, I thought N.O. was headed straight for the “Draft losers” column. In every mock draft I’d written leading up to Thursday, I had the Hornets grabbing a power forward with their Lottery pick. They needed somebody better than Darius Songaila to back up David West, and given the offensive limitations of center Emeka Okafor, somebody who can score in the post while being versatile enough to at least log a few minutes at center in a small lineup. (The Hornets only have three bigs signed for next season.) With this draft so deep in big men, there was no way N.O. could miss with their top pick.

And then they called Aldrich. Don’t get me wrong, I liked him at Kansas, and thought he easily could have gone in the Top-10, but he wasn’t what the Hornets needed. Cole is a true center who can only play center, and a defensive player more along the lines of Okafor. It didn’t help when ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla said, “He’s not going to be a great NBA player” — and it was in the context of a compliment to Aldrich.

With so much talk recently swirling about the Hornets possibly trading Chris Paul in a desperation move to save money, and maligned owner George Shinn looking to sell the team, the Aldrich pick just seemed like another short-sighted move by a front office in disarray.

But by the end of the night, I thought the Hornets put together one of the best drafts of any team in the League, although this morning I haven’t seen them pop up on many “NBA Draft Winners + Losers” columns.

In a trade engineered during the draft, the Hornets sent Aldrich to Oklahoma City along with Mo Pete for some picks, which turned out to be Iowa State forward Craig Brackins and Washington wing Quincy Pondexter.

The East Coast media contingent may not know much about Pondexter, but I’ve watched him for the last four years and he will be a good pro. I would compare him to Grant Hill in his 30’s — not the most explosive athlete, but he’s a smart, polished player who can score inside and from mid-range, rebound and defend at the small forward spot. The Hornets needed to do something about that position, as Peja Stojakovic moves around like he’s got bricks tied to his feet and can’t defend a toaster right now, while backup Julian Wright‘s “He’s got potential” card is about to incur overdraft penalties. Pondexter is a four-year college guy who was talented enough to maybe go pro as a freshman, but stuck around and became an overall better ballplayer, worker, and leader.

Brackins is exactly the kind of PF I thought the Hornets should have looked for in the Lottery, but they got him for 21st-pick money. At 6-10, he can shoot from the perimeter and score inside, and play a couple of positions along the front line. He’s not a project, either, having played three years in the Big 12. When Paul and West aren’t destroying teams with their vaunted pick-and-pop, I could see Darren Collison and Brackins doing the same to opposing second units as a JV version of CP and D-West.

Jeff Bower could be quietly building a resume that earns him respect as one of the League’s top GM’s in a few years. He killed last year’s Draft by landing Collison (late-first round) and Marcus Thornton (second round) before they developed into an explosive backcourt tandem — one of his underrated quality moves was not trading Collison just to move up in the Lottery — I think he killed this year’s draft with Pondexter and Brackins, and by unloading Mo Pete’s $6.2 million salary on the Thunder, Bower may have saved New Orleans from having to trade Chris Paul.

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