Aminu, Smith, Mason catalysts in New Orleans surge

By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer

In the three weeks since Eric Gordon’s return to the court on Dec. 29, the New Orleans Hornets have won seven times – more victories than they accumulated in the previous two months. Gordon (team-best 16.9 points per game) has been an obvious catalyst in the rapid turnaround, but he’s far from the only reason the Hornets suddenly look like a much different team.

Starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu and reserves Jason Smith and Roger Mason have noticeably increased their production since Gordon came back, giving the Hornets improved depth and additional weapons at both ends of the floor. A look at each player’s impact during New Orleans’ recent run of seven wins in the past 10 games:

• After being removed from the starting lineup and playing a total of just 16 minutes over the final two weeks of December, Aminu returned to the first string Jan. 5 at Dallas. That move coincides with the Hornets’ current 6-1 stretch, which included a four-game winning streak, along with this week’s convincing road victories in Philadelphia and Boston. The athletic 6-foot-9, 215-pounder’s impact can’t be adequately gauged in statistics, because one of his primary strengths is one-on-one defense. However, Aminu has been a demon on the backboards, averaging 10.6 rebounds in the seven games, pulling down at least eight each time. Combined with the length and wingspan of 6-foot-10 Anthony Davis, the Hornets have excelled around the rim, outrebounding six of the last seven opponents.

• One night before Gordon’s season debut, Smith returned to the lineup from a shoulder injury with much less fanfare, on Dec. 28 vs. Toronto. After initially bringing Smith back slowly, head coach Monty Williams upped Smith’s playing time to 23 minutes on Jan. 2 at Houston. Since that game, the Colorado State product has been red-hot offensively, particularly on his patented standstill jumpers. The 7-footer is shooting a blistering 36-for-59 (61.0 percent) over that timeframe, while averaging 9.6 points and 4.5 rebounds. His relentless energy has sparked a Hornets bench that has recently become a major strength.

• Like Smith, Mason has been on an absolute tear from the perimeter. Mason’s breakout game occurred the same night of Gordon’s return, with the 32-year-old going 4-for-5 from three-point range at Charlotte. The Virginia product is currently riding one of the hottest stretches of his decade-long NBA career. Over the past 10 games, Mason is shooting an eye-popping 71.4 percent from three-point range (15-for-21). Although Ryan Anderson (league leader in three-point makes, with 118) has cooled lately from beyond the arc by Anderson’s lofty standards, New Orleans ranks ninth among the 30 NBA teams in three-point percentage (36.7).