Three offseasons ago, if you would have asked me to write a piece ranking the Charlotte Bobcats’ top under-25 prospects I would’ve immediately laughed at the notion and then retreated to the fetal position to sob once I gave the topic a few seconds of serious thought.
In their ten year existence, the Bobcats never really had any young players with star potential. Even the most optimistic of early Cats fans (this author included) had 2005 Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor’s career topping out as a “solid” NBA center. Gerald Wallace was the closest thing to a breakout star the franchise ever produced but his ascendance was gradual, under-the-radar with a peak ever so brief.
Yet here we are today, just two months before the ’14-’15 NBA season begins and Charlotte’s NBA franchise – the same one that had drafted and developed talent so poorly for so long – has over half of its roster made up of 25 and under players; all of whom offer intriguing upsides to various degrees. Yes, it is indeed a NEW HORNETS WORLD ORDER.
Ranking the Hornets Top Prospects
8. Jeff Taylor. Age: 25 – Third Season.
THE GOOD: Taylor’s size and athleticism make him a prototypical defensive wing. His shooting form is sound and he isn’t afraid to launch it from deep; also a very sneaky baseline cutter who can get you easy baskets.
THE BAD: A Moneyball diplomat – both traditional and advanced stats hate him. Taylor is billed as a “shooter” but hasn’t shown anything approaching it over his brief career. He’s very old for a third year player at 25 and is coming off a ruptured Achilles – not great news for a wing who relies on tremendous athleticism.
THE UPSIDE: Solid Rotation Player. It seems inevitable that Taylor ends up on the Spurs someday – where he’ll blossom into a more athletic, dynamic Danny Green.
7. P.J. Hairston. Age: 21 – Rookie.
THE GOOD: Has the size, stroke and confidence to be a formidable bench weapon. Limitless range. Physical attributes suggest he could improve defensively.
THE BAD: Poor defensive habits and effort. Gets tunnel-vision on offense. BIG questions surrounding his commitment to fitness and his off the court decision-making.
THE UPSIDE: Sixth Man. There are very few shooter/scorers with P.J.’s size at the two guard. While you don’t want a gunner like Hairston near the starting lineup, for 18-20 minutes a night while your scorers are resting, P.J. could really help a team flourish.
6. Bismack Biyombo. Age: 22* – Fourth Season.
THE GOOD: Initially billed as a one-trick pony shot-swatter heading into the 2011 Draft, Biz has also developed into a quality rebounder and system defender. His shot blocking numbers have gone down but there are some metrics that rank Biz as an elite rim protector. Occasionally surprises with a 10-15 foot jumper. A better free throw shooter than you’d think. Superhuman 7’6″ wingspan; a physical specimen.
THE BAD: Zero hands; can’t catch a basketball cleanly and has an overall poor feel for the game on offense – which makes him a turnover machine. The Bobcats’ success last season had much to do with minimizing turnovers, thus Biyombo didn’t play much and touch/feel is very difficult to coach up. Also for a “defensive anchor”, Biz isn’t all that vocal on D. Considering his offensive limitations, you’d like for him to become more of a floor general at the other end.
THE UPSIDE: Potential Starter. On the right team/situation, Biyombo could be a Top 15 rebounder and Top 5 shot-blocker. He’s probably older than his listed age of 22 but I doubt it’s by that much. Even if he’s 25, Biz still has room to grow both in technique and knowledge of the game. His attitude and work ethic have never been in question. Those early comparisons to Ben Wallace seem attainable given the right circumstances.
5. Cody Zeller. Age: 21 – Second Season.
THE GOOD: Tremendous athleticism. High hoops IQ. Very skilled. Underrated chase-down shotblocker. Very good contested rebounder. Potentially excellent facilitator out of the post. Improved his perimeter shot after the All-Star break.
THE BAD: Has a tendency to “shrink” with the ball in the paint – combined with short arms, gets his shot blocked often. Can rush things; hasn’t caught up to NBA speed quite yet. Must add lower body strength; gets pushed around by full grown men. Needs to become a consistent perimeter threat.
THE UPSIDE: Starter. Cody not only had to transition to the NBA game last season, he had to do it while learning a new position. Cody played out of the post at center near exclusively for Indiana and rarely operated there as a Bobcat. Wingspan aside, he’s a legit seven footer who moves like a gazelle. He’s smart, skilled, works hard and has a great attitude. Could eventually become a better version of Josh McRoberts (high praise coming from a McBob-junkie).
4. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Age: 20 – Third Season.
THE GOOD: Has the potential to become the league’s best perimeter defender. Blocks shots in half-court and transition. Long arms to pester ball-handlers. One of the best rebounding wings in the game already. Aggressive driver on offense.
THE BAD: Undergoing a full-on shot reconstruction; had the worst perimeter shot of any wing in the NBA last season and teams lay off him. Can throw down an occasional spectacular dunk but lacks an explosive first step. Hesitates in transition opportunities and doesn’t finish as well as you’d think. Gets in foul trouble often.
THE UPSIDE: ??? The narrative hasn’t changed. It all hinges on the jumpshot. If he can sort the perimeter game out, he could be Charlotte’s answer to Paul George and a potential All-Star. If not, he’s a specialist and role player.
3. Kemba Walker. Age: 24 – Fourth Season.
THE GOOD: Elite speed and quickness. Barely six feet tall but can get his shot off against anyone AND (most importantly for a small guard) can finish in the paint. Improved passer. A good defender for his size. Intangibles galore. Fantastic leader and clutch player.
THE BAD: Field goal percentage a major concern; needs to become a more efficient shooter from the perimeter. Now that he’s surrounded with offensive talent, will need to become more of a traditional PG and lower the turnover rate.
THE UPSIDE: All-Star. Given the crowd of fantastic PGs in today’s game, actually making an All-Star team will be a challenge but Kemba should at least be in the conversation. If Walker can transition his game away from Monta Ellis and more towards Tony Parker, he could become a multiple selection.
2. Lance Stephenson. Age: 23 – Fifth Season.
THE GOOD: Offensive versatility; can score in a variety of ways – off the dribble, spot-up, transition, etc. Recorded more triple doubles last season than the Bobcats had in their entire ten year history. Very good facilitator; especially for a SG. A bulldog on defense. Was the second best player on a 50+ win team last season and should have made All-Star at just 22 years of age. Confidence never a problem; loves the big games.
THE BAD: Big questions surrounding his personality. Outsized confidence blurs into arrogance at times. Has the reputation of being disruptive to both opponents and his own team. “Steals” rebounds on defense and can stop the ball on offense. Lacks explosiveness. A middling three point shooter. Can take bad shots. Not a universally great defender; Bradley Beal abused him at times during last year’s Conference Semis.
THE UPSIDE: All-Star. Lance’s trajectory has him in the league’s Top 3-4 SGs by this time next season. He’s controversial and by all accounts an eccentric but he’s a virtuoso on the court and, at just 23, has already played a major role in dozens of meaningful Playoff games. If all goes reasonably well, Lance and Big Al Jefferson will represent the Hornets in Stephenson’s home town Madison Square Garden come February.
1. Noah Vonleh. Age: 19 – Rookie.
THE GOOD: Solid jump shot out to the three point line. Surprising handle for a player his size. Was a fantastic rebounder in college due to some ridiculous attributes: a Biyombo-esque wingspan and Kawhi Leonard-sized hands. Very intriguing pick & pop/roll player due to mobility, size and skill level. Already very physically mature; a proto-beast.
THE BAD: A mechanical, grounded player. Post moves are raw. Spent much of his high school career at the wing; still learning the 4/5 spot. Vonleh turned 19 in August and while that’s a major plus for his upside, he’ll struggle learning the game in the meantime. In Summer League Noah was the king of hundred dollar moves with ten cent finishes – and that was going against sub-par competition. Set expectations accordingly for Vonleh this season and next.
THE UPSIDE: Perennial All-Star. Given all the intriguing talent on the Hornets roster and how good they should end up being this season, it’s somewhat ironic that the closest thing the franchise has to a superstar might not even make an impact this season.
Is Vonleh a center? A stretch power forward? He measured 6’9″ 247lbs at the Draft Combine (when he was still 18) and there’s a reasonable chance that he’s still growing. We know he’ll end up putting on more weight – all young players eventually go through a mansformation – but how tall will he end up being? 6’10″? 6’11″? 7ft? A six-eleven guy at 265-275 can play center in this league; especially one with that type of wingspan and posterior.
The big backside is key point, if Anthony Davis is the second coming of Kevin Garnett, Vonleh has the Kevin Love/Lamarcus Aldridge lower body leverage and strength that will allow him to create space on the block. Combine this physical advantage with Noah’s handle and shooting ability and we’re looking at a player who could be both genuinely disruptive on the perimeter AND in the paint. Opposing bigs will have to guard him all the way out to the three point line. Very few, if any NBA big men have that sort of potential.
Given the Bobcats’ decade long struggle developing young prospects, it’s a little strange to write the following statement: Vonleh was extremely fortunate to have been drafted by Charlotte. The team is already good and the fans are too focused on the addition of Stephenson and the rebrand to pay much attention to the uber-raw Lottery prospect taking mental notes at the end of the bench. Noah will apprentice under one of the league’s best post-scorers (Jefferson) and a coaching staff perfectly tailored to develop him. After all, it wasn’t that long ago when Steve Clifford and Patrick Ewing helped develop a raw Atlanta high schooler into a perennial All-NBA center.