By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
February 13, 2013

History has taught that it’s never wise to make sweeping conclusions about an NBA draft class until at least two or three years have passed, which gives young players adequate time to develop and fulfill their potential. However, through the first half of the 2012-13 regular season, the rookies who’ve made the biggest impact have been New Orleans power forward Anthony Davis (No. 1 overall pick in ’12 draft) and Portland point guard Damian Lillard (No. 6 pick).

Davis and Lillard will face each other for just the second time in their budding pro careers Wednesday in New Orleans, in the final game for both prior to the All-Star break. The frontrunners for the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award first squared off on Dec. 16 in Portland, with Lillard draining the go-ahead three-pointer with 0.3 seconds remaining in the Trail Blazers’ 95-94 victory. Lillard finished the win with 16 points (including 4-for-10 three-point shooting) and four assists, while Davis came off the bench to tally 15 points and five rebounds.

The Hornets and Trail Blazers are scheduled to wrap up their three-game season series on March 10, also in New Orleans.

Led by their ROY candidates, New Orleans and Portland are two of the youngest teams in the NBA. Davis won’t turn 20 until March 11, while fellow 2012 Hornets first-round pick Austin Rivers will celebrate his 21st birthday in August. The youthful nature of New Orleans’ roster has head coach Monty Williams stressing the importance of improvement and long-term growth.

“There is never a day this year where we haven’t had to teach something,” Williams said of working with youngsters. “But that’s what we thought this year was going to be (like). … We’re still in this process of building a team and laying this foundation, no matter how many games we win or lose in a row.”

Intriguing matchup: Center, Robin Lopez vs. J.J. Hickson
Two of the NBA’s most improved players, who are both enjoying career-best seasons, lock horns in the paint in the Crescent City. Hickson was a dominant force in the Dec. 16 Hornets-Blazers affair, racking up 24 points and 16 rebounds. Although Lopez has a three-inch height advantage, Hickson has the upper hand in quickness and athleticism. The Hornets will attempt to box out Hickson to keep him from reaching his nightly average of 10.7 rebounds.

Overview
Projected by virtually every NBA analyst to sit out the Western Conference playoffs for a second straight season, the Trail Blazers have instead been one of the league’s surprise teams through the first half of 2012-13. Portland has hovered around .500 in recent weeks and was in a tight race for seventh and eighth place in the West with Utah and Houston. The Trail Blazers finished just 28-38 during the abbreviated 2011-12 campaign, along the way firing longtime head coach Nate McMillan. After career-altering injuries to former star guard Brandon Roy and 2007’s No. 1 overall draft pick, center Greg Oden, Portland’s Plan A was cruelly derailed, but the Trail Blazers have since regained their status as an up-and-coming team.

Star player
Power forward LaMarcus Aldridge has been a constant for the Trail Blazers amid great adversity and misfortune over the past few years. Aldridge will make his second straight All-Star Game appearance on Feb. 17 in Houston. The University of Texas product and former No. 2 overall draft pick leads Portland in scoring and is second in rebounding. He’s a lethal mid-range shooter and has improved his low-post game.

On the rise
One of the most impactful offseason moves by any NBA team – both short-term and long-term – took place in June when the Trail Blazers chose point guard Damian Lillard with the sixth pick in the draft. The previously unknown Weber State product has compiled a phenomenal rookie campaign, already emerging as one of the best shooters at his position. Lillard has made several clutch baskets in 2012-13, including the decisive three-pointer vs. New Orleans on Dec. 16.
X-factor
While Portland’s starting five has no weak links when the combination of Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, Aldridge and J.J. Hickson are healthy, the Blazers’ bench has been a problem area all season. Other than rookie center Meyers Leonard, who spends a majority of his time playing near the rim, none of Portland’s reserves are shooting above 40 percent from the field, an extreme rarity in the NBA. The Hornets almost certainly will have to win the battle of benches in order to prevail vs. the Blazers.

On the sideline
Portland head coach Terry Stotts is seeking his first winning season in five years as an NBA sideline boss, after previous stints with Atlanta (2002-04) and Milwaukee (2005-07). Stotts was never given a considerable amount of talent to work with in his prior stops. As a player, he was a second-round NBA draft pick in 1980, but spent the decade playing professionally in the CBA and overseas.

Did you know?
It’s been a quarter century since any player won the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award after not being picked in the top 10 of the NBA draft. Back in 1987-88, New York point guard Mark Jackson (now Golden State head coach) won ROY after being chosen 18th overall by the Knicks. With Lillard or the Hornets’ Anthony Davis likely to win ROY this season, that trend should continue for at least another year.


Players the Trail Blazers want shooting free throws in a close game… If the Trail Blazers need a three-pointer, three of their best options are…
Name
Career FT percentage (through Feb. 7)
Damian
Lillard
85.1
Weber State product one of NBA’s quickest guards.
Meyers
Leonard
85.0
Lottery pick from Illinois began career 34-for-40.
Nicolas
Batum
84.0
Has increased scoring average all five seasons of career.
Name
Career three-point percentage (through Feb. 7)
Wesley
Matthews
39.1
Father Wes was NBA point guard in 1980s.
Nicolas
Batum
36.9
Played for France’s national team at 2012 Olympics.
Luke
Babbitt
36.6
Lillard is also dangerous, at 36.0 in rookie season.


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