State of the Hornets: Hilton Armstrong

May 12, 2007

Hilton Armstrong soars for a dunk at Detroit on Nov. 15, part of his season-high 17-point effort. The Connecticut alum also grabbed nine rebounds and sealed the win by tapping his missed free throw back to Chris Paul, causing time to expire in a 100-99 triumph. continues its look back at 2006-07 with player-by-player analysis of the team:

Hilton Armstrong
NBA experience: One season with Hornets.
Age: 22.
Games played (starts): 56 (5).
Key statistical averages: 3.1 points, 2.7 rebounds, 0.46 blocks, 11.3 minutes.
What we expected: After being selected by the Hornets with the No. 12 overall pick of the 2006 draft, the University of Connecticut product entered his rookie NBA campaign with a reputation as an excellent interior defender and shot-blocker, but his offensive potential was unclear. In 2005-06, he was selected as the Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 3.15 blocks per game. However, during his four-year collegiate career, the Peekskill, N.Y., native never averaged double-figure scoring, topping out at 9.7 points per as a senior. In fairness, he was never a primary offensive option for the ultra-talented Huskies (his teammates during his senior year at UConn included fellow 2006 NBA first-round picks Rudy Gay, Marcus Williams and Josh Boone). Given his relative lack of experience and playing time in college, it was reasonable to think that – like many of the other big men drafted in 2006 – Armstrong would need some time to develop into a finished product.

What went right: Armstrong showed initial promise during Vegas Summer League competition, averaging 12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds. In just his third official NBA appearance on Nov. 15, the 22-year-old was the star of the night in a one-point win at Detroit, scoring 17 points and grabbing nine rebounds. He sealed the victory by draining a free throw to give the Hornets a one-point lead, then missed the second charity toss but tapped the rebound back to teammate Chris Paul, causing time to expire on the Pistons. Armstrong had one stretch of relatively consistent minutes in December and took advantage with 12- and 14-point games in home wins over Cleveland and Memphis, the final two times this season that he exceeded double figures in scoring. After yet another string of injuries hit the Hornets’ roster, Armstrong closed out the final seven games of the regular season in encouraging fashion, averaging 4.9 points, 4.1 rebounds and 18.6 minutes. Throughout his rookie campaign, he was one of the team’s best finishers around the basket, frequently throwing down dunks when he received passes near the basket.

What went wrong: Consistent playing time was elusive for much of 2006-07 for the first-round pick. To his credit, he never complained and was a willing listener when veteran frontcourt players such as Marc Jackson and David West doled out advice. Armstrong told that his experience of frequently sitting behind more celebrated players at UConn helped him stay patient during some stretches where wasn’t receiving many minutes. Armstrong didn’t play double-figure minutes in back-to-back games until the 19th game of the season, and only played half of a game (24 minutes or more) four times. He averaged 10.3 rebounds and 6.3 rebounds in that quartet of contests.

The future: Armstrong is under contract for 2007-08. The Hornets can pick up a team option for his third NBA season (2008-09) and/or his fourth year (2009-10). Armstrong’s initial goal next season should be to cement a role in the rotation and be the first frontcourt player Byron Scott calls on from the reserve unit. The 6-foot-11, 235-pounder will be in the weight room and attempting to add bulk to his frame in order to become a better position defender in the paint. Armstrong’s role and minutes could partly be affected by what happens regarding Marc Jackson’s upcoming free agency. After spending a lottery pick on Armstrong, the Hornets figure to continue focusing on developing him into a very productive reserve in the short-term, with potential for more in coming seasons.

Here’s what heard about Armstrong in 2006-07:

ESPN The Magazine writer Chris Broussard, during the preseason:
“I really like Hilton. The Hornets didn’t have a lot of size (in 2005-06), but they did a good job of going out and getting Hilton in the draft. … He’s got a great body, he’s strong and he understands the type of player he is. He’s not coming in thinking he’s going to be a star – he wasn’t a star at Connecticut. He played a role. Having that type of guy who is willing to do whatever it takes, that’s going to be a good fit. He’s a good character guy and I really like him. I think he’s going to be a contributor. I don’t think he’ll make any real noise (this season), but I would be surprised if he doesn’t get minutes. He can come in and spell Tyson (Chandler) and be fairly effective when he’s out there. I don’t expect big numbers, but he’s a guy who can get in there and anchor your defense in stints. You look at a lot of seven-footers, and they’re not as strong or as mobile. He’s a guy who can move a little, but he also has some strength.”

New Jersey guard Marcus Williams, Armstrong’s college teammate at Connecticut:
“He’s athletic, he can shoot the ball and run the floor. He’s also great on defense. But I really don’t think he knows the game yet, as well as he should. But give him a couple years, and he will progress. …
“His freshman year he didn’t really play at all. His sophomore year, we had Josh (Boone), Charlie (Villanueva) and Emeka (Okafor). His junior year, he didn’t play again. As a senior, he was a captain and the Big East Defensive Player of the Year and made some of the biggest shots for us in the biggest games. When I see the things he does (now), I’m not too surprised.”

TNT analyst Doug Collins:
“I look at where Hilton Armstrong started out at UConn, and where he finished. The thing that impresses me about him is that he played every day behind Emeka Okafor for about three years, never transferred, worked on his game, got better and better, and worked himself into a first-round pick. I respect that. If he can stay in the gym and work (on his strength), I think he has a chance to be a good player. I’m not saying he’s necessarily going to be a great player, but a good player.”

L.A. Clippers forward Elton Brand, a fellow Peekskill, N.Y. native, on the advice he’s given Armstrong:
“I leave messages for him once in a while. My advice for him was, ‘Keep your head up and play hard. Not all rookies get to play, but keep listening to what the coaches tell you and work hard. Keep getting better and never doubt yourself.’ ”

ESPN analyst Tim Legler, on Armstrong and fellow rookie Cedric Simmons:
“Those guys have not really even had an opportunity to get their feet wet. Hilton has maybe a little bit more than Cedric (recently). You don’t really know what a guy is going to be until he gets consistent minutes. I know that the Hornets like both of those guys’ athleticism and both of them are in the future plans in terms of adding depth. But it’s difficult to say whether anyone is going to be able to stick long-term until you see them play more.”

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