Pulling back the curtain: Inside a ‘disappointing’ NBA Draft Lottery for the Hornets

Filing in through NBA security and forced to give up his cellphone like everybody else prior to getting locked down, Rick Schnall seemed calmer than the waves reaching the shoreline of nearby Lake Michigan.

“Nah,” the Charlotte Hornets co-owner said. “There’s no reason to be nervous.”

The day’s main event was less than 15 minutes away, but Schnall remained even-keeled and mustered a smile while heading into a ballroom inside McCormick Place. The NBA Draft Lottery was about to take place, an event that can assist in constructing the 2024-25 roster over the coming weeks and quickly change the direction of a franchise.

Even though this year’s NBA Draft is believed to be the weakest in more than a decade, and doesn’t mirror last year’s talent spearheaded by Victor Wembanyama, plenty still can be done with the No. 1 pick. So when the Hornets failed to win the lottery on Sunday, there was a melancholy moment or two for Schnall.

Not capturing that No. 1 overall selection, which is something they hadn’t done since 1991, is one thing. Falling to sixth in the first round of next month’s draft order when the Hornets had the third-best odds at 13.3% stung.

“Yeah, disappointed but I also think it’s a good draft to have the sixth pick,” Schnall told The Observer. “So, I think we are going to be fine. We just talked to our guys and we are excited about having the sixth pick. Disappointing, but we are confident we are going to find a good player.”

Schnall was in the actual drawing room for the first time, allowing him to get an up-close view of the process. The Observer, along with 11 other media outlets, had access to the lottery proceedings and witnessed the flurry of emotions Schnall and the other 13 team executives emanated as it unfolded.

When their Southeast Division foe Atlanta, which had the fifth-worst odds at 3%, won while the Hornets didn’t even land in the top four, things were a bit hard to stomach.

“It was a little stressful, but it was fun, it was fun,” Schnall said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t get what we wanted to get. But it was fun to see how it all worked.”

Blink, though, and he might’ve missed it. The actual drawing is that rapid.

At exactly 1 p.m. CDT, the festivities commenced. And since all electronic devices — including smart watches — were confiscated so no one leaked the results, the only way anyone actually knew the specific time was by looking at a clock on the wall.

Everything was in order, including the backup lottery machine in case the main one failed. But it wasn’t necessary on this occasion.

All 14 ping-pong balls used in the lottery were placed in the machine, each individually counted out by number as they were inserted into a hopper that resembled a piece of mega millions equipment.

The button is pressed, adding in air, and the balls begin flying around inside the machine. A separate timer, who’s another member of the process, stood on a riser behind the executives with his back turned, counting to 20 before signaling when to pull the first number.

A six is the initial number of the afternoon drawn, and the executives began frantically checking the combinations they were assigned by the NBA prior to the drawing. A quick scan suggests that number would lead to a potential first overall pick for Houston, by way of Brooklyn, or Atlanta.

Twenty more seconds elapsed before the second ball got pulled. It was 10. Then 20 more seconds go by and the third ball comes out. It’s 14. That’s when the drama really began, because after the next 20 seconds, when No. 13 came up, a brief pause hushes over the room and the combinations are checked.

“Atlanta!” is shouted out. The Hawks won the lottery despite those slim odds. Schnall used to be a part of Atlanta’s organization as a minority owner prior to buying into the Hornets, so there was a snippet of him that was happy for his old crew.

Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields (right) and Mark Tatum Deputy commissioner of the NBA after the Hawks get the number one pick in the 2024 NBA Draft Lottery at McCormick Place West.
Atlanta Hawks general manager Landry Fields (right) and Mark Tatum Deputy commissioner of the NBA after the Hawks get the number one pick in the 2024 NBA Draft Lottery at McCormick Place West.

But it still hurt, knowing Charlotte had a 13.3% chance to land the top pick, giving it the opportunity to pluck the best player off the board.

Washington’s combination of 7-6-1-5 won next, followed by a 6-7-11-9 one belonging to Houston. When No. 3 popped up as the first ball for the fourth and final selection of the lottery, Schnall knew the Hornets weren’t getting that spot either. That’s because all but six of their 133 combinations began with three. The other half dozen started with No. 1.

In 14 minutes, everything done. The event was all over.

“It happens really fast and they run it in an incredibly efficient way,” Schnall said. “And your disappointment comes really quickly. But it was interesting and it was good to see who was in the room, watch how the NBA runs it and understand — it might be my last time in there — it going forward.”

Following those four drawings, the remaining teams were slotted into draft order based on their odds to win, and the Hornets secured the sixth spot, which technically was the lowest they could have fallen. The results were displayed on two boards on opposites of the front podium and the actual envelopes featuring the team’s logos got stuffed and sealed like greeting cards, only to be held by the chief of NBA security and a member of the firm overseeing the drawings integrity for nearly an hour.

Things were complete, but everyone had to wait another 75 minutes to leave until the national broadcast was complete. Once ABC showed Hawks general manager Landry Fields beaming, the secure ballroom doors finally flew open and everyone was free to grab their electronic devices and go their separate ways.

And for the Hornets, it’s the next piece of their offseason jigsaw puzzle that already includes Charles Lee as their new head coach and Utah assistant coach Lamar Skeeter as Lee’s lead assistant.

“Just another step,” Schnall said. “Add another player to our group. Obviously, we’ve added a coach, our front office is nearly complete and we are filling out our staff. We will add a player and Brandon (Miller) was here and he represents what we are all about. And we are moving forward.”

In the same fashion they have for the better part of the last three decades: without the No. 1 overall pick.