By: Jim Eichenhofer,, @Jim_Eichenhofer
December 28, 2012

With the 2012 calendar year coming to a close next week, a pair of rebuilding teams hoping for a brighter ’13 square off in the Crescent City on Friday evening. The New Orleans Hornets and Toronto Raptors hold the first of two head-to-head interconference meetings, with the second taking place in Canada on Feb. 10. That Hornets visit to Toronto will take place exactly one week after the Super Bowl; it also coincides with the culmination of Mardi Gras.

Like the Hornets, who selected Anthony Davis with the No. 1 pick of the 2012 NBA Draft, the Raptors have a top overall draft choice on their roster. Andrea Bargnani was the first player tabbed during the 2006 draft and has spent his entire career with the Raptors.

Like the Hornets, the Raptors were off to a slow start to the 2012-13 season, while attempting to integrate numerous new players into the mix. Toronto and New Orleans are also among the youngest teams in the league – the Raptors’ most grizzled player is 31-year-old point guard Jose Calderon. Canada’s lone NBA franchise also has three players born in the 1990s (recent first-round draft picks Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, along with second-rounder Quincy Acy).

Meanwhile, the Hornets have five 1990s-born players (this year’s draft class of Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers and Darius Miller, as well as Al-Farouq Aminu and Xavier Henry).

Toronto began the campaign at a disappointing 4-19 overall, but has won five of its last six games, including victories over Dallas, Houston, Cleveland, Detroit and Orlando. Friday’s visit to New Orleans is the second game of a Raptors road trip that began with a loss Wednesday in San Antonio.

Intriguing matchup: Point guard, Greivis Vasquez vs. Jose Calderon
In a meeting of Spanish-speaking international players, Vasquez is a native of Venezuela, while Calderon hails from Spain. Both players have been prominent members of national teams for their countries in the past. Vasquez and Calderon also share a common approach in terms of their philosophy while running a team. The pass-first floor generals both rank in the top seven of the NBA in assists. Vasquez is averaging a career-best 8.6 assists per game.

Following the departure of franchise player Chris Bosh to Miami in 2010, Toronto has been trying to fortify its roster in an attempt to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2008. The Raptors have also not posted a winning record since going 47-35 in 2006-07, which enabled them to capture their lone division title in team history. Toronto has qualified for the draft lottery in each of the past four years, but unlike New Orleans in 2012, does not have a No. 1 overall pick to show for it during that span. However, the Raptors did win the lottery in ’06, resulting in the drafting of Andrea Bargnani.

What’s new
The most significant offseason acquisition was point guard Kyle Lowry, but the former Houston and Memphis catalyst has been limited by injuries. When he has been on the floor, he’s the Raptors’ third-leading scorer. Other key veteran additions include Mickael Pietrus (a key reserve on Orlando’s 2009 NBA Finals team) and Landry Fields (formerly of New York and the celebrated owner of Jeremy Lin’s temporary Big Apple couch). The team’s 2011 first-round pick, center Jonas Valanciunas, is an NBA rookie after remaining overseas last season. Toronto’s 2012 lottery pick, small forward Terrence Ross, has struggled with his shot while coming off the bench.

Star player
Due partly to Bargnani’s inability to consistently stay healthy, Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan has taken over as his team’s No. 1 scoring option. The fourth-year pro from USC is a standout athlete and an accurate shooter from the mid-range area of the floor. Toronto relies heavily on DeRozan, playing him 37.1 minutes per game.
On the rise
NBA scouts believe Valanciunas has the potential to become a quality center down the road. A mobile 6-foot-11, 231 pounds, the native of Lithuania was a much-discussed prospect when he entered the 2011 draft. He leads Toronto in blocked shots and is one of their best rebounders, despite playing less than half of each game on average.

In past matchups against the Hornets, the athleticism and energy of the Raptors’ frontline has been a genuine problem for NOLA. Interior players such as Amir Johnson (6-foot-9, 210 pounds) and Ed Davis (6-foot-10, 232 pounds) can be a handful around the basket. The Hornets now have a bit more agility up front, however, with Anthony Davis as a roamer in the paint.

On the sideline
Dwane Casey, an assistant coach for Dallas’ 2011 NBA championship team, was brought to Toronto and tasked with transforming the previously-soft Raptors into a stout defensive club. Toronto improved from 30th to 14th in defensive efficiency last season, but has slipped back to 27th early in 2012-13.

Did you know?
Toronto backup center Aaron Gray played for the Hornets for two seasons, including for the franchise’s 2011 playoff-qualifying team. Two current Hornets – shooting guard Roger Mason and small forward Dominic McGuire – have played previously for the Raptors. McGuire began 2012-13 with Toronto before being released.

Players the Raptors want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Raptors need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Career FT percentage (through Dec. 27)
Once made 87 straight, second-longest streak in NBA history.
Bargnani (82.4) also excellent but is sidelined by injury.
Played three seasons with Spurs before joining Pacers.
Career three-point percentage (through Dec. 27)
Trademark celebration of treys includes holding up three fingers.
Shot 11-for-25 during four straight wins Dec. 14-19.
Immediately cracked rotation after signing in November.