Lopez shows marked improvement in NOLA debut

By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer

Generally speaking, young NBA players tend to fill larger roles as they mature, while gaining confidence and experience. Unfortunately for Robin Lopez, his career arc took the opposite path during four seasons with the Phoenix Suns. From Year 2 to Year 4, Lopez’s average in minutes per game dipped from 19.3 to 14.8 to 14.0. After starting 56 games in 2010-11, he did not start once in 2011-12. Amid what appeared to be a gradual regression, it became somewhat accepted around the league that the twin brother of Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez was more of an NBA backup than a first-stringer.

Everything changed last July, when the New Orleans Hornets acquired Lopez in a trade. With a clear need for a conventional center, the Hornets valued the 7-footer’s ability to score around the basket and protect the rim.

Thirty-plus games into 2012-13, at both ends of the floor, the 24-year-old has produced at a level few could have foreseen. The Stanford University alum entered ’12-13 with a career scoring average of 5.8, but has doubled that as a Hornet, to 11.9. Periodically, Lopez has been a go-to option, with teammates repeatedly feeding him in the low post.

“It’s something I’ve been working on over the past couple years,” he said of his offensive improvements. “With all of the playing time and all of the opportunity I’ve been getting here, I’m really having the advantage of trying it on the court. After practicing, that’s the next logical step. It’s me reading the defense, being aggressive and being in the right place, and having my teammates find me.”

Defensively, Lopez had never averaged more than 1.0 block prior to this season, but is swatting 2.0 a game with New Orleans, 10th in the league.

“My primary goal on the basketball court is to defend the rim,” Lopez noted. “I’m the last line on defense. I’ve got to make sure I’m ready to help my teammates. That’s the mindset, to prevent buckets from being scored.”

Sometimes a change of scenery is the best thing for a player. For Lopez, the move to New Orleans has coincided with a 180 in his role and production.

“I’ve always been trying to improve my game each season in the NBA,” he said. “I’m getting that opportunity now.”