With their playoff chances all but dead, the New Orleans Hornets must shift their focus to the upcoming 2013 NBA draft. At 21-40, the Hornets are destined for another high spot in the lottery, which should help them continue to add to their young core.
As of March 6, the Hornets own the NBA's sixth-worst record with 21 games left to play. Due to a combination of inexperience and injuries, the 2012-13 hasn't lived up to expectations. Still, New Orleans isn't as far away from future postseason appearances as its record suggests.
New Orleans has its own "Big Three" in the form of guard Eric Gordon, forward Ryan Anderson and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis. The team also has two of this season's breakout sensations in point guard Greivis Vasquez and center Robin Lopez.
Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu has played better as of late, but is a free agent this summer. He could return for the right price, but the team has the luxury of finding his replacement in a draft that is filled with quality small forwards.
Regardless of whether Aminu is retained or not, the Hornets should use their high draft pick to select a small forward. Aminu has found his niche as a quality rebounder who can attack the basket and provide solid perimeter defense, but he isn't consistent enough to be New Orleans' long-term answer.
In its most recent mock draft, NBADraft.net has New Orleans using the 6th overall pick (draft order based on records, since the lottery is hard to project) on UNLV freshman forward Anthony Bennett. Bennett is a combo forward who has drawn comparisons to another former Rebel and Hornet great, Larry Johnson.
Bennett is a little undersized to play power forward, at 6'7", 240 pounds, and might be a step too slow to guard NBA small forwards. However, in its draft profile of Bennett, NBADraft.net's Lamont Peterson describes the Canadian big man as an "imposing physical specimen" who is "very athletic, long, quick and fast with a 7'1" wingspan."
Through 29 games this season, Bennett is averaging 16.4 points and 8.3 rebounds a game. He's shooting 53 percent from the field and has displayed range on his jump shot by converting nearly 37 percent of his three-pointers.
The big concern, if Bennett opts to declare for this year's draft, will be finding a position. Power forward would appear to be a more natural fit for him, which would make him less enticing to New Orleans with Davis and Anderson already on the roster. He has the tools to play small forward, but it might not be a spot he's comfortable with.
In this highlight reel from Bennett's 25-point performance against Cal on Dec. 9, you'll see a lot of the things that make the freshman such an intriguing prospect. 24 seconds into the clip, Bennett steps in front of a bad pass in the paint and then darts by most of the field to start the break before finishing with a thunderous slam.
That's a nice display of speed and athleticism, and it will be interesting to see if he can do that in the pros against skilled perimeter players. Another moment when we see Bennett's athletic ability and explosiveness comes at the 3:50 mark.
Bennett bobbles the pass down low, but still manages to retain possession. From the corner, he blows by his man and unleashes a poster dunk on a Cal defender. Plays like that are what will make Bennett fun to watch as a pro, no matter what position he plays.
While the 19-year-old would be an interesting addition for the Hornets, there are a couple other prospects New Orleans should consider. Like Bennett, both of these young men bring a skill set the Hornets definitely need. Unlike Bennett, these two are more natural small forwards.
The first is Georgetown's Otto Porter. Porter is a 6'8" sophomore whose recent play has helped him shoot up draft boards. NBADraft.net has Porter going as high as No. 3 to Washington in its mock draft, while CBSSports.com's Jeff Goodman has him going 8th (up from No. 16 in his previous mock).
In 26 games this season, Porter has averaged 16.6 points and 7.6 rebounds a night for the Hoyas. He shoots 51 percent from the field and 38 percent from behind the arc. He's also doing his part on defense, contributing two steals and a block per game.
Porter's best game so far came in a big win over Syracuse on Feb. 23. In that game, Porter scored 33 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had five steals. He shot 5-for-10 from the three-point line and finished the game 12-of-19 from the field.
In this recap of the Syracuse-Georgetown clash, the focus is on Porter's shooting from deep. Throughout the clip, you can see Porter finding his groove from behind the arc. At the 12-second mark, he manages to nail a three with two defenders closing on him.
Early in the season, Porter struggled a bit from long-range. He seemed like a jack-of-all-trades type prospect in the mold of last year's No. 2 overall pick, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Recently, Porter has taken charge and emerged as a star for Georgetown. Now, he's similar to someone like Indiana's Danny Granger or Toronto's Rudy Gay (but a little better defensively).
The final prospect worth considering is UCLA freshman Shabazz Muhammad. At 6'6", Muhammad is smaller than Porter and Bennett, but with his seven-foot wingspan, he could be an excellent small forward in the pros.
The 19-year-old isn't the natural rebounder that Bennett is, and he doesn't have Porter's defensive acumen. What the former Bishop Gorman standout brings to the table is instant offense. He's averaging 18.3 points for the Bruins in 26 games. He's shooting 46 percent from the field and 37 percent from the three-point line.
He's also managing a respectable 5.1 rebounds per game. Muhammad is a lefty with excellent speed and athleticism. NBADraft.net's Ian Powers once called Muhammad "the most prolific scorer in the country."
In this video from UCLA's game against Georgia on Nov. 20, you'll see part of why Powers makes that claim. The thing that jumps out in this clip is Muhammad's ability on the offensive boards. For a small forward on the short side, he still manages to be around the ball as it is coming off the rim.
Twelve seconds in, Muhammad hustles to tip in the putback off the break. Another impressive aspect of his game comes at the 36-second mark. On this play, he gets the ball inside, uses his body to get position and then goes up for the easy basket. On the following play, Muhammad hangs out in the paint again and receives the long bounce pass for another score.
The willingness to go inside and the hustle he shows on the offensive boards are interesting wrinkles to Muhammad's game. In a way, that makes him a lot like Aminu. However, Muhammad's ability to shoot from long range is what sets him apart from the current Hornets' starting small forward.
The Hornets can't go wrong with any of these choices. Between now and the June draft, there will be two big factors in who ends up in New Orleans. First, time will tell how the Hornets finish the season and whether the lottery will be generous to them for a second consecutive year.
Second, with the NCAA Tournament coming and no clear-cut No. 1 overall pick, any one of these guys can play themselves out of New Orleans' hands. All three have been mocked to New Orleans by NBADraft.net at some point this season.
Who Should the New Orleans Hornets Draft With Their First-Round Pick?
If he's available when the Hornets are on the clock, Otto Porter is the best choice. He brings Aminu's ability to defend and rebound, while also giving the Hornets an upgrade offensively at the small forward position. He has good size, athleticism and wingspan and is a natural at the 3-spot.
If Porter's stock continues to rise and he's off the board, Muhammad would be the next best option followed by Bennett. While the Hornets could get away with Bennett at small forward, he's a more natural fit at power forward. Muhammad would greatly improve the offense, and he could slide to shooting guard if Eric Gordon continues to get hurt.
As of right now, though, the Hornets need to keep their fingers crossed that they can get Porter in a Hornets uniform. There is still a lot of time left between now and the 2013 NBA draft, but he's the guy that gives New Orleans the best chance at turning things around.