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Scott Howard-Cooper

The Hornets must be patient with Austin Rivers as he learns to play the point guard position.
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Hornets making progress, still have long way to go

Posted Jul 16 2012 11:10AM

LAS VEGAS -- At a point far from Washington and New Orleans, there were the Hornets on Sunday night, trying to figure out their plan for the future as they go.

They had only the day before matched the four-year, $58-million offer sheet Eric Gordon signed with the Suns, and now were having to consider the depths of Gordon's displeasure after his stated preference to be in Arizona. They were opening summer league while Anthony Davis was in D.C., great news because he was there gaining invaluable experience as a member of Team USA, but about a continent away from the chance to feel comfortable with the system and some of his new Hornets' teammates.

Austin Rivers, the No. 10 pick in the June 28 draft, was playing a lot of point guard against the Trail Blazers at Thomas & Mack Center. He appears headed for the same role when games count for real in the fall, even as general manager Dell Demps was asked if Rivers is ready to be the primary ball handler and said, "I think we're going to have to see."

In a time of historic forward progress for the entire organization -- Tom Benson bought the team, the future in the Big Easy is more secure than ever, they won the lottery and the right to select Davis as the best prospect in years -- welcome to the reality check. One big we're-going-to-have-to-see time as a reminder that there are no easy fixes.

It wasn't the last time Demps used such phrasing to address a Hornets uncertainty either. Nothing requires the patience, though, of Rivers trying to learn to become a point guard. One season at Duke offered considerable evidence the move isn't a good fit, a year that saw more turnovers than assists. That, and more of a shooter's mentality than looking to get others involved, created a disparity of opinions around the NBA heading to the draft, with some front offices seeing a combo guard with no real position and others envisioning a confidence and versatility that translates to stardom.

The Hornets took Rivers 10th with the plan to re-sign Gordon as a restricted free agent and pair him in the backcourt with the son of Celtics coach Doc Rivers, two scorers who can handle the ball and would generate constant scoring opportunities. Just no real point guard.

"Listen, it's a challenge," Austin Rivers said. "I know I'm up to it. I'm going to work. I'll be ready. Tonight was my first time I've ever done it in my life. You learn. But I know I can do it. I've got four more games, a million more practices. I'll be ready."

Sunday against the Trail Blazers, he had four turnovers and two assists while making only three of 13 shots in the 85-82 loss. Ordinarily, it would mean less than nothing. It was the first game. Of summer league. Without Davis, Gordon or another important New Orleans acquisition, Ryan Anderson, to distribute the ball to the way Rivers will be able during the actual season.

But this is not ordinarily. This is a lottery pick needing to learn to play a position that relies heavily on instinct.

"I think they can play together," Demps said of Rivers and Gordon. "We obviously think that. But it's early still. Austin's a rookie. We'll have to see what happens. I think this will be a big week for him. I thought he had a good week in camp last week. We'll just build on that. We don't want to put too much pressure on him right now."

The Gordon situation, meanwhile, rests entirely on emotion after the Hornets followed through on their promised match. It was Gordon who said in a statement at the time that included the closing comment, "Phoenix is just where my heart is now."

Maybe "now" meant last week and he is on to a new now. Many players in the same situation, after publicly urging the original team not to match, have returned and moved past the potential split. Indeed, when the Hornets made the right move and brought Gordon back, the announcement included a statement designed at making up, at least with the fans.

"There is always a business element to the NBA when dealing with contracts, but I never lost my appreciation for the New Orleans fans," it read, attributed to Gordon. "I look forward to giving my very best on the court this season to make our team successful."

Demps said Sunday that "I don't have any doubt" Gordon will be fully invested when he returns to the court at the start of camp, adding "I think he's good and I think he's a professional. We think he's going to be a big part of our team this year and moving forward."

And the fan reaction, after Gordon said his heart was in Phoenix?

"We'll see," Demps said. "I think a lot of times when guys play well and they play with heart and integrity, fan perception can change. But it'll be interesting. We'll see what happens."

Exactly. We'll see what happens.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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