Thoughts on rookies, Okafor impact in Q&A with Wolves

Thursday, December 3, 2009
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com

In advance of Friday’s home game against Minnesota, we checked in with one of my colleagues, Timberwolves.com writer Jonah Ballow, who provided an in-depth look at the Northwest Division club in the latest Rival Report.

Jonah also sent over a handful of Hornets-related questions for me to answer. The responses appear below:

1) How are the players reacting to the change on the sidelines with Jeff Bower taking over as head coach?
The coaching change seemed to immediately lead to improved play by the Hornets, who were 3-6 when Bower took over. When Chris Paul was injured in Bower’s first game and the Hornets dropped to 3-7, many people were – somewhat understandably – projecting doomsday scenarios for this team. Instead, despite playing without the two-time All-Star, the Hornets defeated two of the league’s best teams, Phoenix and Atlanta, in Bower’s fourth and fifth game on the sideline. The Hornets have been noticeably more competitive across the board over this three-week span, including avoiding the one-sided defeats that were common early in the regular season.
2) Chris Paul recently said he will not return until he feels 100 percent. Is there a target date for his return? How does this team adjust without Paul in the lineup?
There is no set target date for Paul’s return, but lately he’s sounded more and more optimistic that he may be able to return soon. In fact, after Thursday’s practice, he said he had not completely ruled out the possibility of playing Friday against the Timberwolves.
The biggest key to the adjustment without CP3 has been the stellar play of Darren Collison. While most rookies might be overwhelmed by being thrust into a starting role, Collison has played like a multi-year veteran at times. He was one of college basketball’s most accomplished players in four years at UCLA, part of three Final Four teams, so he may be a bit more battle-tested than virtually any player picked in the 2009 NBA Draft. Another impressive aspect of Collison’s first month as a pro is that he’s had a knack for coming up with big baskets and defensive plays in crunch time. During a memorable Nov. 25 win over Milwaukee, Collison sent the game into overtime with a three-pointer, just his third trey of the season. In OT, he came up with a steal of Brandon Jennings in the backcourt and later drew a foul on a drive through the lane with the game tied and only a few seconds remaining.
3) Is the team surprised by the production from rookies Marcus Thornton and Darren Collison?
I don’t think the front office is surprised, because they had confidence both players would be able to make contributions immediately. Part of the belief they expressed in Thornton and Collison came from the fact that – unlike many draftees – both of them played four years in college. Although there is on-the-job training involved for all rookies regardless of their background, the learning curve for the pair of 22-year-olds may be a bit less steep. I will say this, though: the Hornets have to be thrilled about getting contributions like this from a late first-round pick (Collison was chosen No. 21) and a second-rounder (Thornton was No. 43).
4) Discuss the impact of Emeka Okafor on the roster this year.
Okafor has performed as advertised after arriving from the Bobcats in a trade, regularly contributing double-doubles. One of the reasons the Hornets made the deal was to get increased scoring from the center position, which Okafor has provided by averaging 10.5 points. He’s also responsible for nearly half of the team’s total blocked shots (33 of 69) and is pulling down 10.0 boards a game. After Okafor missed all of the preseason due to a toe injury, the Hornets are optimistic that the former UConn star will be even more productive as he adjusts to his new team and teammates.
5) Do you see the Hornets as a half-court oriented squad or do they want to push the pace for fastbreak opportunities?
One of the primary objectives the Hornets had entering this season was to play at a faster pace. Although most people who don’t watch this team regularly think that New Orleans is an up-tempo, fast-breaking team – largely due to the presence of Chris Paul – that hasn’t been the case. The Hornets have ranked in the bottom five in pace in recent seasons. So far in 2009-10, New Orleans has accomplished the goal of playing faster, currently ranking 15th in the NBA in possessions per game. So to answer your question, they want to push the pace more than in the past, but they still have to be considered a middle-of-the-pack team in terms of tempo.



Paul fully participates in Hornets practice


For the first time since his severe ankle sprain on Nov. 13, point guard Chris Paul participated in all contact aspects of Hornets practice today at the Alario Center. The 6-foot, 175-pound All-Star has been increasing the intensity of his workouts recently and making progress toward a return to game action.

The Hornets have gone 4-4 in the eight games Paul has missed.

Paul told reporters that he is hoping to be back soon. He did not rule out the possibility of playing Friday vs. Minnesota, but his status will be re-evaluated later today, as well as Friday morning. The Hornets have scheduled tomorrow's shootaround for 10 a.m. in the New Orleans Arena.

“With these (injuries), how the athlete feels the following morning is always such a determining factor,” Hornets coach Jeff Bower said of waiting until tomorrow to see how Paul feels. “It’s too soon to say anything, other than that we’re encouraged.”

In other injury news, Bower said of Sean Marks that the center “is being slowed with that shoulder (injury). His participation (in practice) has been limited.”

There is nothing new to report on the status of Ike Diogu (knee).

“Ike is still very limited,” Bower said. “We’re in the final stages of a treatment phase (for Diogu). We’ll re-assess it in the next couple days.”

Obviously, the eventual return of Paul will result in Darren Collison relinquishing the starting point guard role. Bower said Collison’s performance so far means the 6-foot rookie will remain a prominent part of the rotation, even when Paul gets back on the floor.

“Darren has proven he can help our team win,” Bower said. “He’s proven that he’s an effective player and that he’s got poise beyond a rookie’s years. We’ll look to be very creative to take advantage of that.”