When David Stern walks to the podium on Thursday night and announces that Anthony Davis is the newest member of the New Orleans Hornets, the Hornets' front office will have taken the first step in the rebuilding process by adding a potentially dominant star to their front court. But while the Hornets will take a collective deep breath after Davis puts on the Hornets cap and shakes the commissioner's hand, they continue to face an even more difficult problem: how will the team replace Emeka Okafor at center?
Okafor was traded to the Washington Wizards last week as part of an effort to reduce the Hornets' salary cap obligations, freeing the team up in their rebuilding process. Okafor's departure leaves a giant 6'10" hole in the Hornets' roster, and while the team will struggle to make up for his lifetime averages of 12.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game, the more important challenge the Hornets will face is what to do about the center position. With Okafor's exit and the free agency of Chris Kaman, the Hornets are left without a true center.
While Okafor's well-rounded game will be difficult to replace, the Hornets have a number of options available to them in finding a new starting center, perhaps none more valuable than the 10th pick in the draft that they possess in addition to their first overall pick.
Here we look at five options that the Hornets' front office will likely consider in finding their starting center for the 2012-13 season.
Jason Smith has the size to be an effective center, standing at 7'0" and weighing 240 pounds. Smith averaged the same number of blocks per game (1.0) as Okafor did last year, despite playing 5.3 minutes less per game. He pulled down 3.0 rebounds less per game than Okafor, but that difference would surely decrease with the positional change.
Smith has According to John Reid of the New Orleans Picayune, Smith indicated that while he would be willing to move to center, he would prefer to stay in his natural power forward position. Yet with the imminent arrival of Anthony Davis, Smith would see his playing time dramatically reduced if he stays at power forward. Smith started 29 games last year and averaged 23.7 minutes per game, the most playing time he has seen in his career. Unless he is willing to take a step backwards, moving to center would offer Smith the most court time.
Smith acknowledged that he would need to gain weight to be an effective center, a move he suggested he would be willing to make. The Hornets love Smith's attitude toward the game, and would surely appreciate his willingness to fill their need at the center position.
The Hornets have the rare advantage of having an additional top 10 pick to their first overall selection. Having a pair of rookie big men would generate quite a bit of excitement around the young Hornets team.
Assuming Connecticut's forward/center Andre Drummond doesn't make it to the 10th spot of the draft, the Hornets could find themselves with one of two choices at the center position: North Carolina's Tyler Zeller or Illinois's Meyers Leonard.
Zeller would offer a towering presence to the Hornets' frontcourt; he stands 7'5" and weighs 247 pounds. In his senior year at North Carolina, he averaged 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and shot an impressive .808 percent from the free-throw line. Zeller earned himself a Second-Team All American designation and won the ACC Player of the Year award.
Because he played four years at Chapel Hill, Zeller has the experience necessary for major playing time, which would be likely considering the lack of size currently on the Hornets' roster.
Zeller recently worked out for the Hornets, and according to Reid, the team is rumored to have him high on the draft board. But if Zeller is picked early by a team like the Detroit Pistons, or the Hornets decide to go another direction, there is another big man with lottery-level talent...
Along with Tyler Zeller, the Hornets will take a long look at Illinois standout Meyers Leonard on draft night. Leonard recently worked out for the team—along with Zeller and two other recruits—and though Leonard is four inches shorter and has two years less experience than Zeller, his production in college last season was anything but lacking.
After a freshman season in which he played only 8.2 minutes per game, Leonard started 17 games in 2011-2012, averaging 13 points, 2.1 blocks and 7.8 rebounds while shooting 59.9 percent from the field. Though the Illini didn't live up to their potential, compiling a 17-15 overall record with a 6-12 Big Ten record, it was clear early in the season that Leonard was pro material.
Leonard's game isn't as complete as Zeller's, but his upside is potentially greater. Leonard didn't begin playing center until his sophomore year of high school, and he should improve substantially as he continues to learn the position.
Leonard would be more of a long-term project than Zeller, certainly longer than other options on this list. But if the Hornets are willing to show patience in rebuilding, Leonard could offer the team a handsome reward.
HoopsHype rates JaVale McGee as the second best center available in the free-agent class, trailing only Roy Hibbert. In 25.2 minutes per game last season, McGee pulled down 7.8 rebounds, scored 11.3 points and blocked 2.2 shots per game. He's only 24 years old, and the Nuggets will very much want to keep him in Denver as part of their youth movement.
New Orleans is far from the only team who will give McGee a long look, and it's easy to picture him fitting in with many different teams. Yet if the Hornets are as committed to developing a young team as they have been saying, signing McGee would be a much wiser move than bringing back the older Chris Kaman, though perhaps not as wise as looking to the draft class with their 10h pick.
After joining the Hornets as part of the Chris Paul trade, Chris Kaman struggled to find his place on the team. Just over a month after he came to New Orleans, the Hornets announced they were looking to trade the big man in order to give their younger players more playing time. The team deactivated Kaman, but after failing to find a team with sufficient interest, Kaman returned to the court.
Kaman likely will not want to pass on a chance to contend for his first championship (if he does choose to play in Miami) in exchange for the chance to play with a team that deactivated him just last season.
However, the Hornets have plenty of salary cap flexibility after the Okafor trade, and if their other options don't pan out, they could make Kaman an offer too good to refuse.