CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte Hornets are turning to a pair of young, inexperienced power forwards after losing Josh McRoberts in free agency.
McRoberts was the one player coach Steve Clifford said the team couldn’t afford to lose this offseason.
Yet the seven-year NBA veteran is headed out the door.
The Miami Heat announced Monday they intend to sign McRoberts when the NBA’s moratorium on deals being formally struck ends on Thursday.
Clifford hasn’t been made available to the media this week, but it’s expected second-year player Cody Zeller will take McRoberts’ spot in the starting lineup with Noah Vonleh, the ninth overall pick in last month’s draft, likely to see significant playing time.
The Hornets don’t have any veteran depth at power forward beyond their two youngsters.
Zeller, the No. 4 pick in the 2013 draft, played in 82 games with three starts as a rookie and averaged six points and four rebounds per game last season.
However, he showed dramatic improvement in the second half of the season – and said he’s ready to take on a starting role.
“I feel like I did pretty well in the few starts I had,” Zeller said. “I know it’s a lot different starting than coming off the bench just because of the rotations – I figured that out quick last year. It’ll definitely be different but I’m looking forward to it.”
Charlotte general manager Rich Cho and Clifford have spent the week courting restricted free agent small forward Gordon Hayward, hoping $16 million in salary cap space helps them land the former Butler star who spent his first three NBA seasons playing alongside current Hornets center Al Jefferson in Utah.
If the Hornets have a plan to bring in a veteran power forward they’ve kept it a secret.
Zeller said McRoberts’ decision to leave hasn’t affected how he’s prepared this offseason.
Zeller knows he needed to get better in all areas, particularly with his mid-range and 3-point jump shots. He’s more confident now in that aspect of the game after not getting much of a chance to showcase his outside shooting skills while playing at Indiana.
“I think that is going to add so much more to my game,” Zeller said. “It will open more driving lanes for me and open more for my teammates. That’s something I have been working on.”
Hornets associate head coach Patrick Ewing, who’ll coach Zeller in the NBA summer league, said along with becoming a more consistent shooter the 7-foot Zeller needs to work on finishing at the rim.
“Taking the ball stronger to the basket. ... that’s one of the things he has to do a better job of,” Ewing said.
The 6-foot-10 Vonleh has a tremendous 7-foot-4 wing span, large hands and great shot-blocking ability. Cho said the team had him rated higher than the ninth pick and was ecstatic when he fell to the Hornets.
But he’s raw.
Vonleh is only 18 and might still be a year or two away from competing at the NBA level after spending just one season at Indiana before leaving for the pros.
“The NBA is way more physical and faster than college,” said the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Vonleh said after minicamp practice. “You have to adjust to the shot clock. But I’m getting adjusted.”
Said Zeller: “I keep kidding these guys saying you can never have enough Indiana guys.”
Zeller said while he’s looking forward to an opportunity to start, he’ll wisdom he gained from being around a veteran like McRoberts.
“He was great for me,” Zeller said. “He was one of the main veterans that taught me a lot, kind of taught me the ropes of the NBA. I would have liked to have spent more time with him, but I know this is a great opportunity for him.”