Belinelli will start Saturday vs. Memphis

Friday, October 8, 2010
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

Throughout training camp, Monty Williams has often said there are four Hornets players on the roster who are essentially locks as starters: past All-Stars Chris Paul and David West (obviously), along with Trevor Ariza and Emeka Okafor. The fifth spot has remained in question, but Williams said this afternoon that it will go to Marco Belinelli in Saturday’s preseason opener against the Memphis Grizzlies.

An outstanding three-point shooter the coaching staff also believes is an underrated passer and playmaker, Belinelli could be an excellent fit to mesh with Paul and Ariza in particular. Belinelli may be able to spread the floor by spotting up along the three-point arc, opening up lanes for the dribble penetration of Paul and Ariza’s slashes to the rim.

As a result of the decision to start Belinelli, it means Marcus Thornton and Peja Stojakovic will both come off the bench, on paper providing the second unit with the most scoring punch it’s had over the five years of the Chris Paul era. Willie Green is also expected to be in the rotation Saturday, serving as the backup point guard behind Paul. Green averaged double-digit points two straight seasons with Philadelphia in 2006-07 and 2007-08.

Williams said Stojakovic will play minutes at backup small forward and power forward Saturday, which could mean lessened playing time for some of the other frontcourt reserves. It should be pointed out that although Belinelli will start Saturday and potentially for the near future, it does not mean he’ll necessarily get more total playing time than Thornton, one of the NBA's breakout rookies in 2009-10.

“I like Marcus off the bench and he’s done a good job of buying into that,” Williams said. “I think he can be valuable to us with his firepower off the bench. If you look at good teams around the league, they’ve got guys coming off the bench who can change the game. I told (Thornton) it’s not who starts all the time, but if you can finish games that’s just as important. Sometimes we may have to finish (games) with Willie and Marcus.”

Plenty at stake for multiple Hornets in preseason

After months of widespread changes to the roster and front office, the New Orleans Hornets finally take the floor against another NBA foe Saturday, hosting the Memphis Grizzlies (7 p.m., New Orleans Arena). It’s the start of a rapid-fire New Orleans preseason schedule, which concludes Oct. 21 in Oklahoma City. The Hornets are the last of the league’s 30 teams to begin their exhibition slate.

Earlier this week, first-year head coach Monty Williams provided the local media with an informal list of players who will likely receive reduced minutes during the eight-game preseason. With the Hornets scheduled for three back-to-back sets over the 13-day exhibition schedule, veterans such as Chris Paul, Peja Stojakovic, David West, Emeka Okafor and Willie Green probably won’t see their normal dose of playing time. Conversely, young/unproven players who are trying to establish themselves in the New Orleans rotation will get a longer look than would normally be the case. Williams cited Mustafa Shakur, Marco Belinelli, Quincy Pondexter, Joe Alexander, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and Aaron Gray, among others, as fitting that description.

Here’s a brief look at some of the younger players whose role and status could be impacted greatly by what takes place in preseason games:
Mustafa Shakur, point guard
Prior to the release of Jannero Pargo, the Hornets had three players on their roster with relatively substantial experience playing the point-guard position in the NBA (Paul, Green and Pargo). Pargo’s departure reduced that number to two. Plus, Green is not viewed as a natural point guard, having played the vast majority of his minutes in Philadelphia off the ball, as an offensive-minded shooting guard. Add it all up, and it means Paul and the 6-foot-4 Shakur are the Hornets’ two “true” 1s on the roster. But based on Williams’ comments this week, it doesn’t sound like Shakur is in the short-term running for the backup role, though the team likes his potential. “(Shakur) is a work in progress,” Williams said. “He’s a young guy coming out of the D-League. To put that kind of pressure on him (by giving him significant duty immediately), I don’t think would be fair.”

Marco Belinelli, shooting guard
Williams has recently said it’s possible – partly based on how players fit chemistry-wise alongside Chris Paul and David West on offense – that several different Hornets are options to potentially land a spot in the starting lineup. It appears that Paul, West, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza are locks to be in the first unit, but the remaining fifth spot is TBD. Belinelli’s ability to spread the floor with three-point accuracy makes him an intriguing possibility. Williams said after Friday's practice that Belinelli will get the starting nod in the preseason opener vs. Memphis.

Quincy Pondexter, small forward
Perhaps the player Hornets fans will be most focused on watching during preseason. It will be interesting to see how the athletic 6-foot-6, 225-pound rookie fares against NBA veterans. On defense, he physically overwhelmed some of the summer-leaguers he guarded one-on-one. Like Belinelli, he’s in a situation where there are other Hornets with substantially more experience at his position (natural small forwards Ariza and Peja Stojakovic). Williams: “It would be irresponsible of me to put him out there if he’s not ready. But if he shows that he can (contribute) and other guys aren’t playing as well, he’s going to get an opportunity. Ideally you’d like to bring a guy like that along slowly, but we think Quincy can help us.” More from Williams on Pondexter: “He brings intensity every day, plays hard and knocks down a lot of shots – which is surprising a lot of people. We want him to have some carryover into games. Offensively, he’s got to play the 3, but defensively we think he can guard 1s, 2s and 3s.”

Joe Alexander, power forward
Just two years ago, NBA scouts thought so highly of him that he was a Milwaukee lottery pick, but his brief career has barely gotten off the ground to this point. He’s appeared in only 67 games over that two-year span, including just eight in 2009-10. The Hornets believe that despite efforts to make Alexander a small forward in the past, his best position is actually power forward, where he does not have to play away from the basket as much or handle the ball as frequently. It’s the position he was comfortable playing as a youngster and in college at West Virginia. Alexander is 6-8, 230 pounds, and based on his wingspan and athleticism, he seems to have the ability to play much bigger than that.

Pops Mensah-Bonsu, power forward
Known as an “energy” four-man, from that standpoint Mensah-Bonsu is cut from a different mold than several of the backup frontcourt players the Hornets have relied on over the past few years. New Orleans has tended to use players behind David West whose biggest strength relies in their skill but are relatively unathletic (Darius Songaila, for example). Mensah-Bonsu is an extremely active 6-foot-9 player whose biggest contributions are often on defense and the backboards.

Jason Smith, power forward/center
The 7-footer is expected to compete for minutes at both of the "big" spots. "We don't know which of those guys (among Alexander, Mensah-Bonsu and Smith) is going to come in first off the bench in that spot," Williams said today. "It could be Jason. He's certainly a guy that's in that mix. We have to be mindful that (what's important) is not which guy plays (at backup 4), but the fit with the group."

Aaron Gray, center
The noticeably slimmed-down 7-footer gets his first opportunity to demonstrate how much his improvement in physical conditioning might help him on the floor. Aside from Okafor – the starter at the 5 – Gray and Smith are the only Hornets who have extensive NBA experience at the center position.