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Kai Jones is bold. Charlotte Hornets’ rookie talks confidence to wear 23 on Michael Jordan’s team

Jonathan Alexander
The Charlotte Observer
Charlotte forward Kai Jones goes up for a dunk against Portland's Michael Beasley during an NBA Summer League game Aug. 8. Jones wears No. 23, made famous by Hornets owner Michael Jordan.

It didn’t take long in Las Vegas to find out what the Hornets saw in Kai Jones when they drafted him 19th overall out of Texas.

In the fourth quarter of the Hornets’ first Summer League game, Jones set a pick-and-roll for Grant Riller, getting himself open.

Jones received the pass at the left wing. He pump-faked and drove past his defender to the basket. He took two dribbles and used his long legs to launch himself into the air over Blazers forward Kenneth Faried for a slam that resembled Michael Jordan’s "Space Jam" dunk.

Some fans in the Cox Pavilion gasped, while others stood on their feet and cheered. It was an unhumanlike play, and one that should endear Jones to Hornets fans.

“His length, his size, his athleticism. I think the No. 1 thing he does right now is he runs the floor at an elite level,” Hornets coach James Borrego said. “He can run with our young guys.

“I think until you see him out there with (LaMelo Ball) and the entire group, we won’t have a true sense of what he can be for our program. He’s working through our Summer League right now and trying to figure it out along the way, but he’s a tremendous athlete.”

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Jones, a 6-foot-11, 218-pound power forward, played two seasons at Texas, coming off the bench in most of them. But at a glance, he has the potential to be much more than that in Charlotte, and he exudes confidence, becoming the first Hornets or Bobcats player to wear No. 23 since Michael Jordan became majority owner.

The Observer spoke with Jones in a one-on-one interview to talk Summer League, his highlight dunks, his goals and more. The interview has been slightly edited for brevity:

What has it been like so far, and what are your impressions of the Hornets?

It’s just a beautiful, fun time. A lot of learning. A lot of growth in the past two weeks.

Kai Jones takes a pass in front of Chicago center Marko Simonovic during an NBA Summer League game last week. Jones averaged 9.8 points and 9.4 rebounds in five Summer League games.

The pace of the game, different plays, details, how to read the floor. Playing with high-level players and getting out there in Summer League. It’s just fun. Just being a professional. It’s really fun.

What inspired your decision to wear No. 23, and on a team owned by Michael Jordan himself?

It’s a legendary number, and I feel like Michael Jordan had a huge impact on the way I played the game. Especially over the pandemic. That’s when I really decided to take my game to another level.

More:Texas Kai Jones, now rocketing up NBA mock draft boards, going pro early

I tried to get 22, but another player had it. And No. 13 was retired. So I said, "Why not 23?" Might as well. And I felt like I looked good in it too.

Did you talk to Jordan about it?

No, but when I was deciding on it, (the Hornets) spoke to him and cleared it with him too.

I also felt it was a great way to honor him. Trying to be the best you can possibly be. It’s a reminder that I feel like Jordan maxed out in the league. He developed every aspect of his game. He won championships, MVPs. He’s an inspiration. So I’m trying to be the best I can be.

Does wearing the number come with any added pressure?

Absolutely not. In the NBA, you’ve got to go out and perform regardless. If I had worn 0, there would have been pressure. It doesn’t matter; I’ve still got to go out and perform whether I’m wearing 23, 22, 0 or 5.

I saw something in your game that I didn’t see much of at Texas, and that was your ability to push the ball upcourt. Who were some guys you modeled yourself after?

Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant. Those are guys I watched. They’re both big, and they are all-around players. They can shoot, dribble and pass. Giannis doesn’t really shoot as much as KD.

Former Longhorn Kai Jones answers questions during his introductory press conference after being picked 19th overall in the NBA draft in July.

But I feel like they have similar body types. I’m just trying to pick up on their cadences and how they play the game.

You had two huge dunks — one against Portland and another against San Antonio. Which one was sweeter?

Hmmm. I thought the one in the first one was the better one. I watched myself make the read throughout the game, so I made the play.

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And on the second one, I just made a conscious decision to try to jump over him. The second one was just instinct. The first one, I really just threw it in.

The second one was more body contact.

On paper, the Hornets have a deep roster. How do you plan to find a way into the lineup?

The biggest thing is going in and competing. I’m a rookie, and I have a lot to prove.

Showing that you can contribute to winning, blocking shots, rebounding the ball, scoring. Those are all ways I plan to get on the floor. By doing those things well.

What’s your goal this season?

To go kill. Kill everything. Show my all-around game and to get better every day. I want to go into training camp and show everyone my game. To continue to grow and get better every day.

What motivates you?

A drive to be great. I love the game so much. And just wanting to be the best version of myself possible. I understand it takes a lot of work, practice and confidence to be great. To me, I have really high goals and high expectations for myself.

The chip on my shoulder. I feel underrated. I feel like there are a lot of people considered ahead of me. Every day I’m motivated. Just walking around the hotel here, just seeing guys. You see someone walking past you every day, trying to get your spot. You see someone’s spot, who you’re trying to take.

So people motivate me.

Being from the Bahamas motivates me. Being the 19th pick motivates me.

Do you think you should have been picked higher?

I feel like I got drafted right where God wanted me to be.

At the end of the day, there were 18 guys that teams felt were better than me. I’ve got a lot to prove in that regard.