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Opportunity Knocks for Multiple Hornets Players
By: Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com, @Jim_Eichenhofer
March 13, 2012

Theres no one on our team who can say they havent had a chance to prove themselves. Opportunities in this league dont come often. This is a golden opportunity for a few guys, who might not ever get this chance again. - Monty Williams

Injuries are a fact of life in the NBA, an inevitable byproduct of the wear and tear on the body during the long professional basketball season. For the New Orleans Hornets, 2011-12 will be remembered partly for a devastating number of significant injuries, resulting in the absence of five of the teams eight leading scorers for at least 10 games apiece. At the All-Star break, Hornets players had missed the second-most total games due to injury among the 30 NBA teams (New Jersey topped the list by a narrow margin).

There is often a silver lining to injuries, however. As Williams mentioned following one of the many defeats in which New Orleans has been severely shorthanded this season virtually every healthy Hornets player has been given greater-than-expected playing time. A total of 13 different Hornets have started at least once. Four different players with D-League experience have appeared in a game, including three players who were signed to 10-day contracts.

For the Hornets Greivis Vasquez and Gustavo Ayon, 2011-12 has been a prime opportunity for the good friends to solidify themselves as quality, contributing NBA players. For others, including the likes of Lance Thomas, its provided the chance to turn the tenuous footing of a 10-day deal into a NBA roster spot for the remainder of the season.

Heres a closer look at three of the players whove stepped in and capitalized for a Hornets squad that often has only had nine or 10 healthy bodies available in recent games.

Greivis Vasquez
As a rookie with Memphis in 2010-11, Vasquez played somewhat sparingly, but delivered key plays during the eighth-seeded Grizzlies thrilling Western Conference postseason run, including a clutch three-pointer in an epic triple overtime game vs. Oklahoma City. However, in the 2011 offseason the Grizzlies drafted a point guard (Josh Selby) and signed a free agent (Jeremy Pargo) at the same position, leaving Vasquezs role in question.

Memphis traded Vasquez to New Orleans on Christmas Eve, but the second-year pro still suited up and played 27 minutes for the Hornets just two days later, a critical contribution to an 85-84 victory. The Maryland products ability to be ready on short notice has proven important at several junctures in 2011-12, including a 12-game stretch in which he moved into a starting role. With Jarrett Jack sidelined for the first chunk of those dozen games, the 6-foot-6, 211-pounder quickly asserted himself. Over his 12 starts, the native of Venezuela averaged 11.8 points and 6.6 assists, but perhaps the best aspect of Vasquezs stint with the first string was New Orleans road victories at Milwaukee, New York and Cleveland. He was the first opposing point guard to prevail against New York after Jeremy Lin took over as a starter.

Im sure when the season started and he was in Memphis playing behind Mike Conley, he didnt forecast this, Williams said of Vasquez, who has already exceeded his total minutes from his rookie year. I know hes happy about his situation (of getting to play more). You have to be ready when the opportunity presents itself.

Gustavo Ayon
The native of Mexico began the 2011-12 NBA season known primarily by avid fans of international basketball, after he enjoyed successful stints in Venezuela and Spain. Two-plus months later, Ayon has received rave reviews from numerous NBA analysts, including ESPN.coms John Hollinger, who early in the season ranked Ayon among the leagues top 20 players in efficiency rating.

It seemed unlikely Ayon would be on the floor enough to merit that kind of praise during the preseason, because he was behind Carl Landry and Jason Smith on the depth chart at power forward. However, on Feb. 4 the Hornets experienced perhaps their most damaging loss of the season. In a defeat in Detroit, both Landry and Smith were injured in separate incidents involving the Pistons Jason Maxiell. Neither player would return to action in the next month. Ayon moved into the starting lineup on Feb. 6 vs. Sacramento and remained there every game until he too sustained a foot injury that kept him out of the March 7 game at Sacramento.

In his first 14 starts, the 26-year-old rookie averaged 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds, while shooting 54.7 percent from the field, often showing a knack for scoring around the rim. Perhaps his most NBA-ready skill has been his passing ability, which helped improve the offenses chemistry.

Hes been a surprise to everyone, Williams said. His energy, his spirit and his game have helped us a ton this year. He defends the ball, he can pass well and makes plays that you cant create. Once he gets a consistent 15-foot shot, I think hes going to be even better.

Lance Thomas
In a way, Thomas rookie NBA season has been the best illustration of opportunity arising for untested Hornets players. Thomas made New Orleans opening night roster coming out of training camp, but was waived a week into the regular season on Dec. 31. Just over a month later, Thomas was re-signed by the Hornets to a 10-day contract, which culminated in a season-long deal on Feb. 26.

As it turned out, Thomas chance to play during his pair of 10-day contracts was actually significantly greater than when he initially made the team in December. By the March 7 game at Sacramento, the Hornets top three power forwards (Ayon, Landry, Smith) were all sidelined, opening up a bona fide chance to contribute for Thomas. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder responded with an eight-point, four-rebound game. Two nights later, he turned in his breakout performance at Denver, scoring a team-best and career-high 18 points, highlighted by 12-for-14 shooting from the foul line. He competed the whole night, Williams said afterward. That was something I was really proud of.

The dozen made free throws by Thomas topped any Hornets player in a game this season, but during a season in which so many have been pressed into duty, the most telling stat from that night may have been this: Thomas became the 11th different Hornet to lead the team in scoring.


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