Under-the-Radar Trades Spark Hornets
By: Jim Eichenhofer,

November 11, 2010

When former San Antonio Spurs executive Dell Demps was introduced as New Orleans general manager in July, he immediately vowed to improve the Hornets ability to scout international players, an area in which the Spurs have excelled. While New Orleans revamped front office must wait until at least next years draft to demonstrate their skill in that category, Demps found an infusion of talent this offseason in a very unlikely location: the NBAs Atlantic Division.

In a pair of trades that went almost completely unnoticed amid The Decision and various other big-name free-agent power moves, Demps acquired Marco Belinelli from Toronto and later dealt for Philadelphias Willie Green and Jason Smith. The deals received brief mention on NBA shows across the country, before everyone quickly went back to arguing about whether LeBron James took the easy way out, or whether Amare Stoudemire was enough to finally get the Knicks back into the playoffs.

Despite their lack of acclaim, two weeks into the regular season, Green, Smith and Belinelli who each had relatively minimal roles on non-playoff teams in 2009-10 have been critical elements to the best start in Hornets franchise history. Green and Smith came off the bench in 109 of a combined 129 appearances they made for the 76ers last season, while Belinelli was a fringe rotation player for the Raptors. As Hornets, Belinelli and Smith have been given the biggest opportunities of their NBA careers to contribute, while Green has served as a glue guy for a New Orleans bench that was supposed to be a major weakness.

Hornets center Emeka Okafor recently noted that one key to the teams early success has been its large group of players who have something to prove a list that also includes Okafor after his disappointing 2009-10 debut with New Orleans. Dell did a great job of getting talented players who are also hungry, Okafor said. Theyre guys who want to win, who havent had the best chance to win with other teams, but can play.

Its an apt description for three major contributors to the Hornets fantastic start to the 2010-11 regular season, a development no one outside the Big Easy saw coming.

Talk to Green even for five minutes, and youll come to understand why the eight-year NBA veteran is already one of the most respected players in the New Orleans locker room. The mature 29-year-old comes off as much older than his age while discussing his career. For example, hes quick to mention how grateful he is just to be in the league and to make a living playing basketball.

Every day I wake up, I am blessed and thankful to be able to do something I love to do, Green said during preseason. There are so many people who would love to be able to do what they love. Im thankful and blessed to have this opportunity.

Like his former 76ers teammate and current Hornets head coach Monty Williams, Green is a spiritual man the 6-foot-3 shooting guard attends pregame chapel service 60 minutes before every game. Green is the kind of experienced pro that younger players lean on to provide them with advice, something the 24-year-old Belinelli says has already come in handy.

Willie is a good guy and an experienced guy who knows everything, Belinelli credited. With eight years in the league, when he tells me something, Im ready to listen. Hes a great guy and a great teammate. You can trust him.

On the court, the Detroit native has shown his versatility, as a player who can handle a wide range of duties based on what the team needs. Green did an admirable job defending against LeBron James during a thrilling win over Miami and often draws difficult assignments at that end of the floor. Green also delivered a crucial late-game layup at San Antonio and sank a game-clinching free throw in the season opener vs. Milwaukee.

Willie Green is a leader, in every way, Williams said. He defends the toughest guy every game and hits big shots. Willie is the kind of guy you wish could play for a championship team, and someday we hope he does here.

As one of the players beginning to garner attention for his contributions to the Hornets, Jason Smith recently was called over after an Alario Center practice to speak to a group of local reporters. One media member proceeded to ask the third-year pro from virtually every angle possible how much his early success has come as a surprise. Has it been surprising to Smith? Have Smiths new teammates been caught off guard by him playing so well? Are opposing teams startled when the 24-year-old starts draining jumper after 20-foot jumper, as the power forward/center did in the Nov. 3 win at Houston? Is the New Orleans coaching staff surprised?

Williams answers the last one: Jasons a guy that nobody really anticipated would play this well. He had a great preseason, but we didnt know if that would carry over into the regular season. Jason is full of energy. He and Willie have given our bench some go-to punch in a number of ways, offensively and defensively.

Much of the uncertainty regarding Smiths prospects for 2010-11 came from his ongoing recovery from a severe knee injury. After showing significant promise as a rookie with Philadelphia in 2007-08, Smith missed all of 2008-09. Last season he returned to the court, but his role with the 76ers was greatly reduced.

For a Hornets team whose frontcourt depth was often lacking in recent seasons, Smiths shooting, rebounding, interior defense and hustle have been noticeable upgrades. Several New Orleans teammates admit that they didnt know much about Smiths skill set prior to his arrival in the Crescent City due to his limited playing time in Philly but quickly realized Smith is a unique 7-footer.

He can shoot, two-time All-Star forward David West said. Thats definitely to our benefit, to have a guy off the bench (like that). Were not asking him to put the ball on the floor too much. He knows when he has an open shot, hes got to take it.

When Smith has entered games early in the season, hes often been paired in pick-and-rolls with Chris Paul. During the win over Miami, the Heat essentially ignored Smith, leaving him wide open so that they could double-team and trap Paul. The strategy backfired when Smith started making shots from the top of the key. Twenty-four hours later, Smith noticed that the Bucks defense had already made an adjustment.

I kind of felt (more defensive attention) in Milwaukee, Smith said when asked if opposing teams were beginning to alter their strategy against him. They realized I could shoot from (watching) a little bit of tape, I would assume.

Paul: I didnt know what to expect the first few days coming into training camp, but it didnt take us long to realize that he can really shoot. Jason has been outstanding. He may not be a guy (opponents) talk about much on the scouting report, but I guarantee you hes going to be on there now. We know what hes capable of. Night in and night out, hes producing for us.

As a first-round pick of Golden State in 2007, Belinelli entered the league billed as a potential starting-caliber player, part of Italys recent wave of talent after countryman Andrea Bargnani was the No. 1 overall pick in 06. However, during Belinellis three previous seasons, he never quite earned the full confidence of the two teams hes played for, the Warriors and Raptors. When Belinelli was named New Orleans starting shooting guard, it marked the first time the 6-foot-5 shooting guard has entered an NBA season knowing he was a prominent part of the plan.

Im happy, but I worked a lot to be in this position, to be a starter, said Belinelli, a free agent next summer. For me, everyone knows this is an important year. Im happy to be playing. Im happy because my coaches, teammates and this organization have confidence in me. Its all on me now to work hard, be better and do everything the coaches ask me to do.

Hornets teammates will tell you that Belinelli often among the last players still working out in the gym after many practices is one of the best perimeter shooters theyve seen. His accuracy is so impressive at times that some Hornets have actually gotten angry when Belinelli has passed up open shots. In Game 1 of the regular season, Paul had an exchange with his fellow starting backcourtmate that illustrates the confidence the players want Belinelli to have on the court.

In the first game against Milwaukee, I missed three or four shots, all open three-pointers, Belinelli remembered, before smiling. I didnt take the fifth shot when Chris passed me the ball. After that, he came over to me and said, Hey, shoot the ball! When I pass the ball to you, Im thinking every time its going in.

When CP tells you that, its important, Belinelli continued in his accented English. You can feel the confidence coming from these guys. I have to be happy about that.

Among the trio of Green, Smith and Belinelli, the Italian is the only one who has never qualified for the NBA postseason, something he says is a big part of his motivation (incidentally, Green and Smith made a combined four playoff trips with the Sixers but did not advance past the first round).

For me its big to make the playoffs, Belinelli said. Everyone tells me the playoffs are great and its a different atmosphere, the basketball is more intense. Im really curious and I want to make the playoffs. I think we have everything to do that.

Though its extremely early, if New Orleans returns to the playoffs in 2011, the play of several Hornets who were far removed from the leagues headline-generating summer will be one reason. There may be NBA teams with more talent on paper, or a more extensive track record of past success, but few clubs possess as many players as motivated by their prior NBA experiences.

Its been a blessing, Green said of the Hornets start and short-term outlook. I believe Coach Monty and Dell have done a tremendous job of bringing in guys who fit what were looking for as a team. We knew this was going to be a good, scrappy team. It feels good to be able to come in and do the things were doing.

We always tend to get those guys that play with something to prove, Paul said. And I love playing with those guys.

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