By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
November 2, 2012
For the second time in the first three days of the 2012-13 regular season, the New Orleans Hornets host an opponent who qualified for the Western Conference playoffs last season. The Utah Jazz pay a visit to New Orleans for a Friday 7 p.m. game, with the Jazz coming off an impressive one-sided victory over Dallas. The Hornets dropped a 99-95 decision to the Spurs on Wednesday, after the guests overcame a four-point deficit with just over two minutes remaining.
In a bit of a scheduling oddity, Friday’s game is the first of two trips by Utah to the Crescent City in the month of November. The Jazz will return here on Nov. 28, the Wednesday after Thanksgiving. New Orleans will play in Utah’s EnergySolutions Arena twice in the latter half of the regular season, on Jan. 30 and April 5.
Frontcourt is recognized around the league as a primary strength for both the Hornets and Jazz. New Orleans’ biggest offseason pickups were both forwards, No. 1 overall draft choice Anthony Davis and former Orlando sharpshooter Ryan Anderson. Meanwhile, Utah has been spearheaded over the past few seasons by a formidable group of bigs, including center Al Jefferson and power forward Paul Millsap. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter are both recent lottery picks who may make a major impact this season and beyond.
Both teams are led by a head coach in his third season at the helm, though Tyrone Corbin took over the Jazz midway through 2010-11 after venerable and longtime Utah sideline leader Jerry Sloan resigned. Monty Williams and the Hornets took two of three head-to-head games from the Jazz last season, prevailing twice in the Big Easy.
Intriguing matchup: Center, Robin Lopez vs. Al Jefferson
Having played four previous NBA seasons with Phoenix in the Western Conference, Lopez has battled Jefferson numerous times. Lopez calls Jefferson one of the toughest big men to defend, partly due to Jefferson’s array of old-school, low-post moves. “(He) is very skilled,” Lopez described. “He’s good at using his body and making himself bigger than he is. He’s very good with up-and-under low-post moves and very good at using both hands (to shoot around the rim).” Lopez turned in a stellar preseason for the Hornets and delivered eight points and nine rebounds in the regular season opener vs. San Antonio.
After finishing 36-30 last season and returning to the playoffs, Utah’s objective in 2012-13 is to continue making strides toward becoming an elite Western Conference team. The Jazz made several roster moves this summer, in an attempt to become a more balanced squad. Ever since franchise player Deron Williams was traded midway through the 2010-11 season, guard play has been a problem for the Jazz. Utah hopes to have shored up that category by bringing in another Williams, trading for Mo Williams (no relation to Deron) to handle the starting point guard job. Although Williams is a 10th-year veteran and a few other Jazz players have extensive experience, overall it’s a young team with multiple recent high draft picks. The development of players such as 2011 first-rounders Enes Kanter and Alec Burks could determine if Utah makes a further climb in the West standings.
Point guard Mo Williams was the most discussed addition to Utah’s roster this summer, but far from the only key change. After seven serviceable seasons in Atlanta, small forward Marvin Williams joined Utah in a trade with the Hawks, who received Devin Harris. Harris was Utah’s fourth-leading scorer in 2011-12. The Jazz also lost their fifth-leading scorer from last season, C.J. Miles, who signed a free-agent contract with Cleveland. Joining Mo Williams and Marvin Williams among the significant new faces for Utah is shooting guard Randy Foye. The pair of Williams acquisitions have already proven valuable for Utah, tying for a team high with 21 points apiece in Wednesday’s 113-94 rout of Dallas.
On a team with few household names, Mo Williams is the lone player who has appeared in an NBA All-Star Game, doing so in 2009 when he was a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers. However, center Al Jefferson’s name often pops up on lists of “best NBA players who have yet to be named an All-Star.” The burly 6-foot-10, 289-pounder led Utah last season in scoring average (19.2), rebounding (9.6) and blocked shots (1.7). Some of his relative lack of publicity and recognition has been due to his teams’ general dearth of success – Jefferson has only been in the playoffs twice (in 2005 and 2012).
On the rise
With an impressive package of size (6-foot-10, 248 pounds), athleticism, wing span and skill, power forward Derrick Favors possesses impressive upside. The No. 3 pick of the 2010 NBA Draft appeared to blossom during the playoffs last season, averaging 11.8 points and 9.5 rebounds vs. San Antonio. The Georgia Tech product has shown glimpses of future greatness in his first two NBA seasons; he often overwhelms opposing big men in the paint and is a ferocious dunker.
Gordon Hayward, who burst onto the basketball scene in 2010 by leading tiny Butler University to the NCAA title game vs. Duke, often serves as a barometer for Utah. In one telling stat, Hayward shot 41.0 percent from three-point range during Utah’s 36 regular season victories last season, but only 23.7 percent in its 30 losses. He experienced a miserable four-game first-round playoff series against the Spurs, going just 6-for-33 (18.2 percent) from the field. Utah was swept by top-seeded San Antonio.
On the sideline
Tyrone Corbin went 8-20 after taking over as Utah’s head coach midway through the 2010-11 campaign, but led the Jazz to a playoff berth in 2011-12, his first full season. The former NBA small forward played in the league from 1985-2001, including three seasons for the Jazz in the early 1990s. The 1992 and 1994 Utah clubs each reached the Western Conference finals, led by the Hall of Fame duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton.
Did you know?
Utah’s roster has a distinct Gulf Coast region flavor, including Mississippi natives Jefferson and Mo Williams. Seventh-year forward Paul Millsap is a native of Monroe, La., and excelled in college at Louisiana Tech. Williams is a University of Alabama product, while Jefferson went straight to the NBA from high school in Prentiss, Miss.
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