5 Critical Revelations from New Orleans Hornets Training Camp

Dave Leonardis@@FrontPageDaveContributor IIIOctober 29, 2012

5 Critical Revelations from New Orleans Hornets Training Camp

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    While the preamble to the NBA regular season is often overlooked, training camp is where we get an idea of what to expect when the games actually count. Those October scrimmages and practices are where team chemistry is built and rookies cut their teeth.

    For a young team breaking in as many new faces as the New Orleans Hornets, this year's training camp may be the most crucial one in years. The team returns one starter from last year's opening day roster and that's shooting guard Eric Gordon, a man who has played all of nine games for the franchise.

    The Hornets spent the offseason overhauling the roster and opened camp earlier this month with a slew of questions. Is Gordon healthy? How will the learning curve affect 19-year-old No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis? Can rookie Austin Rivers play point guard? What role will forward Ryan Anderson have? Are Greivis Vasquez and Al-Farouq Aminu adequate starters?

    We won't know definitive answers to those questions until we are deeper into the regular season. For now, the Hornets have looked like a team with a ton of promise as well as a ton of growing up to do. New Orleans went 4-4 in the preseason, but finished strong with a 96-89 win over the defending champion Miami Heat.

    The win saw Davis come of age with a 24-point/11-rebound performance. It also saw fellow rookie Austin Rivers injure his ankle for the second time in a week. It was the type of game that gave Hornets fans a reason to be excited and a reason to cringe.

    How the Hornets' preseason exploits translates to the regular season remains to be seen. Still, there were important aspects to take away from this exhibition period. Whether it was rookies emerging out of nowhere or keeping a watchful eye on the team's injury report, this month has given us a better understanding of this Hornets team.

    While we can be here forever breaking down every nugget, I broke down the most important revelations from camp and the preseason down to a list of five.

    Here are the five critical revelations that stemmed from Hornets training camp.

Eric Gordon Is Back

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    The most important question facing this year's Hornets team involved the health of shooting guard Eric Gordon. More precisely, the growing concern over Gordon's surgically-repaired right knee and whether he would be ready for the regular season opener against San Antonio.

    According to NOLA.com's John Reid, Gordon was finally able to return to practice after being held out of practice and the team's eight preseason games. Gordon took part in a short scrimmage and, more importantly, participated in contact drills.

    "I've been doing whatever the team is doing. I'm trying to keep progressing. I'm rehabbing but I'm doing a lot more activity with the team." Gordon said.

    Gordon's return to practice is crucial on many levels. For starters, the Hornets desperately need Gordon to stay healthy this season and help carry them as far as his body will let him. He's the team's best player and most potent offensive weapon. His presence on the court is vital to a team lacking proven scorers.

    Gordon's participation also allows the fourth-year guard to develop chemistry with the rest of his team. The Hornets have seven new players on this year's roster and all of those guys have played together with their franchise guard resting on the bench. With the former Hoosier back in the fold, the team gets to see how he'll interact with fellow building blocks such as Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson and Austin Rivers.

    Despite the triumphant return, Gordon's status for the Halloween opener against the Spurs is still in question. "We'll see what they got planned for me to do," Gordon said. "Whether it's limited minutes, playing or maybe wait a while. We don't know for sure."

    The important thing is E.G. is back on the court. The Hornets' patience will truly pay off if Gordon is able to play at least a bulk of the regular season schedule. For now, it looks like the team took the right approach in resting its talented-yet-oft-injured franchise player.

Anthony Davis Is Ready for the Next Step

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    No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis was seen as a potential franchise cornerstone and the type of big man that comes around once-in-a-generation. Still, for all of his talent, the assumption was that it would take some time for the youngster out of Kentucky to adjust to life in the NBA.

    If training camp and preseason are any indication of what to expect from "The Unibrow" in Year One, that assumption is about to be turned on its ear. Davis averaged 14.9 points in seven preseason games. That's a big deal for a rookie who some believed was still raw offensively. His 9.9 rebounds per game is fourth-best in the league during the exhibition season.

    Granted, it's the preseason and you have to take these numbers with a grain of salt. However, Davis' production has come quicker than many anticipated and gives optimists a reason to believe he's ready to make an immediate impact. If nothing else, his performance in the preseason finale against Miami got the attention of one famous observer.

    "He's going to be a heck of a player," said reigning MVP LeBron James (courtesy of ESPN.com). "He showed it tonight."

    It appears the time spent in London teaming with James during the Olympics is paying off for Davis. On a team that needs offense as well as a presence in the post, the former Wildcat seems ready to fill both voids.

    Davis' performance against the defending champions also generated some praise from Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. "He can pose a lot of problems: shot-blocker, rebounder, shooter. He's a very good passer," Spoelstra told NOLA.com. "A lot of qualities similar to Tim Duncan when he was young."

    The comparisons to Duncan is the ceiling that Hornets fans have crossed their fingers hoping Davis will reach. Duncan transformed a declining Spurs team into a contender after his arrival in 1997. The hope is that Davis can do the same in New Orleans.

    If this year's No. 1 overall pick continues to play like he has this preseason, those comparisons will become significantly less far-fetched.

Darius Miller Will Be the Team's Biggest Surprise

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    Anthony Davis hasn't been the only impressive Hornets rookie out of Kentucky this preseason. Second-round pick Darius Miller has played well, too.

    Injuries helped the former Wildcat see some increased playing time in the exhibition season. He started one game at shooting guard after injuries to Austin Rivers and Eric Gordon kept them out of the lineup.

    The most surprising part of Miller's preseason performance has been his shooting from behind the arc. Miller shot 71.4 percent from the three-point line, nailing 10 of 14 threes in eight games.

    Miller's natural position is at small forward and the team has some uncertainty at that position. Al-Farouq Aminu and Lance Thomas have been battling it out for the starting job at the 3. Aminu took the job from Trevor Ariza last season, while Thomas is more of a 'tweener who is better suited at power forward. Miller can just as easily steal time away from either if he keeps playing like he has.

    Miller's play may not earn him the starting job, but it definitely gives the team a reason to give him some minutes with the second unit. With the improvement in his shooting touch, he could emerge as a nice option off the bench as well as another three-point threat on a team deep with shooters.

    At the very least, Miller is a good insurance policy in the event that injuries continue to be an issue for Rivers and Gordon as the season progresses. Miller has become a forgotten man in a draft class that has been so focused on Rivers and Davis. As the sixth man at Kentucky, Miller is used to flying under the radar behind higher-regarded teammates.

    Still, Miller's performance this preseason makes him hard to overlook now. With the team as a whole shooting poorly from deep, Miller was the team's only consistent shooter. He's a consummate role player who could be the team's biggest surprise this season.

    "All I can control is playing my hardest. I'm going to come out and bring energy into the lineup," Miller told NOLA.com "I'm not where I need to be. I don't think any of us are. But hopefully if I continue working, I'll get there."

    The Hornets already had a potentially great rookie class with Davis and Rivers. With Miller's emergence, this group of freshmen now looks even more impressive.

Al-Farouq Aminu Isn't a Lock to Start at Small Forward

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    When Al-Farouq Aminu took over the starting small forward spot late last season, the Hornets defense improved and the writing was on the wall for the end of the Trevor Ariza era.

    With Aminu on the floor, opponents shot 42.8 percent from the field and 31.4 percent from behind the arc. When Ariza played, those percentages went up to 47 and 36.4, respectively (stats courtesy of hornets247.com). Those numbers made the switch look wiser and helped justify Ariza's trade to Washington over the summer.

    When Aminu went on a defensive rampage at the Olympics, it generated buzz that the former Clipper may be ready to break out this season as the team's new starting small forward.

    Apparently, we got ahead of ourselves.

    For all of Aminu's defensive prowess, his offensive game is lacking to say the least. Aminu started the first five preseason games, but his poor shooting forced coach Monty Williams to give Lance Thomas a look as the team's starter at the 3. Thomas started the final three preseason games.

    Neither man was particularly effective and, as a result, the team's small forward position looks a bit murky. Both men are known more for their defense than their offense, so the lineup will take a scoring hit regardless of who gets the nod.

    The bigger issue here is that Aminu is facing competition for the job at all. Thomas is a 'tweener who's better suited to play power forward. The fact that he's giving Aminu a run for his money when the former Wake Forest stud had all the momentum is enough to be concerned. Aminu was always a work in progress, but his play down the stretch and over the summer gave many reasons for hope.

    Aminu outplayed Thomas against Miami, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. That was a stark contrast to Thomas' one-point performance. Aminu's play earned him some praise from his head coach.

    Williams told NOLA.com: "I thought (Aminu) was exceptional in his energy, defended, ran the floor and attacked the basket. He's quick, athletic and can rebound. He's a really good player."

    Williams isn't sure who will get the call against San Antonio, but the way Aminu finished suggests he'll get the nod.

    Then again, this preseason should be a lesson on not to assume things with Al-Farouq Aminu.

Austin Rivers' Ankle Issues Are a Concern

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    The biggest difficulty facing No. 10 overall pick Austin Rivers was supposed to be his transition from college shooting guard to NBA point guard. Apparently, Rivers' frail right ankle is the bigger concern.

    Earlier this summer, pain in his right ankle cut the former Duke guard's Summer League stint short. That pain required surgery and hindered the rookie's progress. Then, Rivers sprained the same ankle against Dallas and left the building in a walking boot. Despite that injury, Rivers still took the floor against the Miami Heat, where he proceeded to sprain his right ankle again.

    The fortunate part of this story is that Rivers didn't suffer any structural damage and even made a return to practice. Rivers believes the ankle shouldn't keep him from making his regular season debut in the team's opener against San Antonio.

    "By Wednesday, I'll be fully ready. It's definitely sore. The fall was pretty bad, but I'm lucky my body is strong and I was able to walk away from it." Rivers said, according to NOLA.com.

    Rivers is a big part of this Hornets turnaround. He's not only the team's potential point guard of the future, but he's an offensive weapon on a team that doesn't have many scoring options.

    The fact that the team allowed Rivers out there against the Heat just days after he injured the same ankle he had surgery on is risky. The fact that he was allowed to practice after injuring the ankle for the second time in four days is alarming.

    Rivers has been fortunate that this bad week of injuries wasn't that serious. There's no structural damage and, for now, there are no long-term effects. Still, perhaps the Hornets should pay close watch to the Warriors' issues with Stephen Curry's ankles. Curry's problems are a bit more severe, but they are still a cautionary tale.

    Like Curry, Rivers is trying to make the move from college gunner to pro facilitator. Like Curry, Rivers is a dynamic young scorer with a sweet shooting touch. Ankle issues have sidetracked Curry's career. It remains to be seen how it will affect Rivers' pro prospects, but the Hornets would be wise to take it as slow with their rookie guard as they did with Eric Gordon.

    Gordon's knee is a bigger issue than Rivers' ankle, especially given Gordon's reputation for being fragile. However, with three ankle ailments in the span of a couple months, Rivers could very well be on his way to earning the same reputation as Gordon.

    Rivers may not be that concerned about his ankle, but the Hornets should be. It is important to the team's long-term plans that Gordon and Rivers stay healthy and become comfortable playing together. That can't happen if one of them is in a walking boot.