Posted Mar 17 2010 9:56AM
As the games go whizzing past like mile markers outside a speeding car and the hopes of reaching the playoffs fade into the rear view mirror, all that Darren Collison has to hold onto is the journey.
This isn't exactly the ride he expected when he arrived in New Orleans as the 21st pick in the 2009 Draft. Not being thrust into the lineup when All-Star Chris Paul's latest injury required knee surgery on Feb. 4.
Collison has responded with 19.5 points, 10 assists and 1.7 steals per game as a starter, while shooting 49.3 percent, 82.4 percent on free throws, good enough to be named Western Conference rookie of the month for February.
"I never doubted for a minute that I could play in the NBA," Collison said. "But I didn't really think it would happen this way, this soon, this fast. I figured that I'd spend the whole season working with Chris, backing him up and getting some playing time.
"Then the injury happened and Chris was out and it was time to just get out there on the floor and play. I didn't really have time to think about it. There was a job to do."
The 6-foot Collison prepared for this job with what might as well have been four years in the mines under hard-nosed coach Ben Howland at UCLA, where everyone is expected to get down and dirty. The Bruins made three trips to the Final Four during his college career, putting him in plenty of big games and plenty of high-pressure situations.
"It was an intense atmosphere, no question about it," Collison said. "It wasn't the kind of team where you were allowed to take games or plays easy. The idea was to go all out all of the time that you're on the court and that really prepared me for the NBA."
The Hornets understood the importance of having not just a placeholder in reserve at the point guard position, but someone who could keep his foot down on the gas pedal in the event that Paul was lost for any length of time.
"It's a big loss when Chris is hurt obviously," said Hornets coach Jeff Bower. "It's such a crucial position. That's the reason why we did make the selection with Darren. We knew how important that role was with us and it's proven to be exactly that. We had a lot of confidence in Darren, but we didn't draft him to be in this role. But to his credit he's made the most of it."
Collison handed out a New Orleans rookie record 18 assists and scored 17 points on Jan. 30 when the Hornets ended Memphis' 11-game home winning streak. Just last week he exceeded that mark by dishing 20 assists while scoring 16 points in a win over Golden State. In between he hung up a triple-double with 18 points, 12 assists and 13 rebounds against Indiana.
After tumbling off their pedestal as a 56-win team two seasons ago, the money-conscious Hornets could greatly trim their payroll by dealing Paul and giving Collison the full-time job. But that might mean closing down shop, since Paul is the face of the franchise. Or they could deal the rising point man Collison in order to get Paul more help.
But Bower insists neither of those are options.
"We weren't trying to replace Chris and didn't expect Darren to do that," Bower said. "Darren has used his skills and talents really well within our team and made the most of the opportunity and what we're looking forward to when Chris gets back is using both of them as we go forward."
While Collison often looks comfortable running the show, no less an authority than Paul knows the problems facing a rookie point guard.
"It's real tough," said Paul who has traveled with the team during his rehab process. "On one hand you're a rookie and on the other hand you're the man in charge. A lot of times a lot of things go unsaid, because you don't want to get on guys, the veterans. It's a process I went through and now it's something he's going through. I keep telling him to be more assertive than he is. But as much as I tell him that I want him to do it, I still understand that he's a rookie."
Collison says it's attitude and actions more than any words that have enabled him to fit with the starters.
"They've got to see that you want it as much as them," he said. "You've got to make right decisions in the game. No pity when things don't go well. No foolish decisions. They've been playing this game for a long time and you've got to make veteran decisions to fit in with them.
"There are so many sets you have to know along with the personnel. You have to constantly talk, communicate a number of things. But it's nothing that you haven't done through your career as a point guard. Any point would know that they've been doing those things since you were born.
"In the end, they've got to see that you're working on your game, show them that you want it. You can't fool anybody out there. They can see and tell whether you belong or not."
The veterans let him carry the game plan on the court, yet they still make him tote a special piece of pink Barbie doll carry-on luggage for road trips.
"It's the price I pay for being the new guy," Collison said. "I'm still a rookie."
But growing fast.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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