Initial Report Card Grades for Each New Orleans Hornets Youngster

Dave LeonardisContributor IIINovember 7, 2012

Initial Report Card Grades for Each New Orleans Hornets Youngster

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    For a young team like the New Orleans Hornets, periodically grading individual performances is a good way to track how the team progresses throughout the season. The Hornets have gotten off to a nice start, going 2-1 in the season's first week.

    There are a couple of interesting things to consider about the Hornets' unlikely record. First, they opened the first week of the season facing three playoff teams from last year and were a bad fourth quarter against the Spurs away from being 3-0.

    Second, they've managed to take care of business despite franchise guard Eric Gordon still out with a knee injury and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis missing time with a concussion. In their most recent win over Chicago, they hardly ever trailed against the Bulls even with their two best players injured.

    That's a strong testament to both the depth of this young team and the remarkable coaching of head coach Monty Williams. Williams was tasked with a Hornets roster that was next-to-last in terms of NBA experience at an average of 2.79 seasons per player. He responded by transforming them into a solid unit that will give opponents a run for their money going forward.

    Williams and the Hornets have benefited from some inspired play from unlikely sources. Starting point guard Greivis Vasquez has been one of the season's early surprises. Small forward Al-Farouq Aminu has improved offensively, as has center Robin Lopez. When healthy, Davis has shown the potential that generated so much hype going into his rookie campaign.

    With the team heading into a clash with yet another playoff team in Philadelphia, I handed out grades for all of the young players on the roster based on their performances in both the preseason and regular season. None of the guys on this report card are older than 26 years old.

    Here's a look at how the members of this Hornets team have fared in the season's opening week.

SG Xavier Henry

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    2012-12 Regular Season Statistics: 1.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG

    Grade: F

    The case can be made for Xavier Henry to get an "incomplete" for his early season performance because he hasn't played much this season. As it stands, Henry's averaging about five minutes per game. With guys like Austin Rivers and Roger Mason Jr. ahead of him on the depth chart, it's been tough for Henry to show what he can do.

    That being said, Henry didn't exactly give the team a reason to hand him more minutes with his uninspired preseason performance. Henry shot 25 percent from the field and ended the exhibition season averaging 3.3 points per game. On the bright side, that's triple what he's averaging now.

    With Eric Gordon out indefinitely thanks to his bothersome knee, it was important that a veteran like Henry step up. Instead, the team handed the starting job to the rookie Rivers. Mason, meanwhile, has played admirably as the backup.

    If Henry's struggling to find playing time now, it's only going to get worse for him once Gordon returns. Granted, Henry has been battling his own knee troubles, but it is still imperative that he plays better in the small amount of minutes he's been given.

    Henry was a good shooter and scorer in his lone season at Kansas, but he's been underwhelming since being drafted as a lottery pick by the Memphis Grizzlies two years ago. Barring a sudden rash of injuries in the backcourt, the future in New Orleans doesn't look promising for the former Jayhawk.

SF Lance Thomas

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 0.0 PPG, 1.0 RPG

    Grade: Incomplete

    Lance Thomas has played all of five minutes this season. That came in the Hornets' most recent game against Chicago and that was mainly based on the fact that Anthony Davis was out. Once Davis returns from his concussion injury, it's safe to say Thomas will be lucky to see any playing time.

    The small sample made it impossible to grade Thomas. In the preseason and the Summer League, Thomas showed some promise as a 'tweener who could possibly be in the mix as a backup at either forward spot. Thomas even got the starting nod at small forward twice in the preseason.

    That seems to be a distant memory, thanks to the excellent early performance by starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu. With Aminu playing well on both sides of the ball, he seems to have the starting job locked down. Rookie Darius Miller has snagged the majority of the playing time as Aminu's backup.

    That leaves Thomas as the odd man out. Like Henry, it will take some misfortune with the injury bug to get Thomas some playing time. When he's on the court, Thomas is a decent rebounder for an undersized forward. He also can be a scoring option in the post.

    For now, Thomas joins Henry at the end of the bench. His best chance of making an impact this season will be making the most of the playing time he gets in Davis' absence. When Davis returns, Thomas will only have his solid showing in Las Vegas and the preseason to hang his hat on unless something unforeseen occurs.

PG Brian Roberts

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 1.3 PPG, 1.0 RPG, 0.3 APG

    Grade: D-

    When he averaged 10.4 points per game in the preseason, it looked like the Hornets may have found a decent backup point guard in Brian Roberts. Instead, starter Greivis Vasquez has logged a majority of the minutes at point guard and Roberts has seen the least amount of playing time of any player on the roster.

    Roberts is averaging 3.7 minutes per game this season. Vasquez, meanwhile, leads all Hornets with 36.7 minutes per game. The lack of playing time and the solid preseason performance convinced me to give Roberts the benefit of the doubt. After all, it's not his fault Vasquez is playing at a high level so far (13 points and 9.7 assists per game).

    What is Roberts' fault is his play on the court in the little time he sees. He's shooting 14.3 percent from the field, on 1-of-7 shooting. He's 0-for-2 from the three-point line. In the preseason, Roberts shot a little over 40 percent from the field, including nearly 43 percent from behind the arc.

    Granted, you are inclined to take preseason numbers with a grain of salt and Roberts isn't seeing the same amount of playing time in the regular season to help improve on those numbers. Still, the Hornets don't have many proven point guards on the roster, so the lack of playing time for Roberts should tell you something about the team's faith in their backup.

    As the season progresses, the Hornets will be wise to trim some of Vasquez's minutes to keep him fresh down the stretch. That will hopefully open up more opportunities for Roberts to replicate his preseason numbers. Roberts has worked his way onto this team, so it's still too early to give up on him just yet.

SF Darius Miller

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 1.0 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 1.7 APG

    Grade: D

    Darius Miller was one of the Hornets' nicest surprises during the preseason. He shot the ball well, especially from behind the arc (66.7 percent from three on 8-of-12 shooting) and was solid enough to earn some time as the backup small forward behind Al-Farouq Aminu.

    "He's been solid all preseason," said coach Monty Williams, prior to the team's home opener against San Antonio. "He looks like a guy who has played all four years in college."

    Miller hasn't capitalized on his opportunities so far. Despite averaging 14.5 minutes per game, Miller hasn't found the same shooting touch as he did during the exhibition games. He's shooting 20 percent from the field and 25 percent from the three-point line.

    Fortunately for Miller, the team doesn't have many alternatives to cut into his playing time. The team could try Xavier Henry at small forward, but he hasn't lit it up either in the small amount of time he's been on the court.

    With his solid play in the preseason, Miller gave the Hornets and their fans hope that he'd bolster an already strong rookie class. There's still plenty of time for him to improve, but the early numbers are a bit disheartening. The team can really use some help at the small forward position, so it's up to Miller to regain the shooting touch that made him such a pleasant surprise coming into the season.

PF Jason Smith

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 11.3 PPG, 4 RPG, 1 BPG

    Grade: B-

    The early success for the New Orleans Hornets has a lot to do with the excellent play of their big men so far. Robin Lopez has been great offensively, defensively and on the boards. Anthony Davis has star potential. Ryan Anderson has been one of the team's best offensive weapons.

    Lost in all the ink dedicated to those men, however, has been the play of Jason Smith. Smith isn't getting the starter minutes that guys like Lopez and Anderson are getting, but he's still managed to be productive. He's averaging 11.3 points per game and he's providing a boost on the defensive end with a block per game.

    Smith has also been perfect from the free-throw line, going 10-for-10 this season. His work from the charity stripe late in the fourth quarter against Chicago helped seal an unlikely win over the Bulls. What makes Smith's play even more impressive is that he's managed to get off to a strong start despite being hampered all preseason with a bum shoulder.

    Smith's rebounding numbers seem to be par for the course. He averages 3.2 rebounds per game for his career. Still, a guy with Smith's size should be more active on the boards. Even though the team has plenty of good rebounders on the roster, it will help if their backup center can bolster his paltry rebounding stats.

    For the most part, Smith has provided the team with some nice depth in the frontcourt. He's a scoring option down low and he adds to an already impressive defensive unit with his shot-blocking. It is imperative in today's NBA that teams protect the rim and Smith's presence inside goes a long way towards New Orleans achieving that goal on a nightly basis.

SG Austin Rivers

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 6.0 PPG, 2 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.7 SPG

    Grade: C-

    There are positives and negatives to take away from the beginning of the Austin Rivers era in the Big Easy. On the bright side, Rivers has showed promise as the team's point guard of the future by averaging more assists than turnovers (3.3 assists to 2.3 turnovers). He's also been solid defensively, notching five steals in the past two games.

    The bad news for Rivers is that the shooting woes that plagued him during the Summer League and preseason continue to be an issue. For a guy who shot so well in college, Rivers doesn't seem to have the same touch in the pros. Including the preseason, Rivers is 2-for-20 from the three-point line. He's shooting 20 percent from the field in the regular season.

    The team drafted Rivers with the hope that his scoring potential would boost an offense that was in desperate need of a jolt. With Eric Gordon out, Rivers has been the starter at his natural shooting guard position all season. Still, he's not providing the offensive spark many hoped from the former Duke standout.

    Making matters worse, it was Rivers' inadvertent elbow that gave Anthony Davis the concussion that has sidelined him. While the Davis injury was a freak accident that can't be placed on Rivers' shoulders, blame can be handed down for the rookie's inability to take advantage of Gordon's absence.

    It's one thing if Rivers was struggling to adapt to playing point guard, but to struggle at your natural position is a bit of a concern. The team needs to help Rivers find a rhythm by drawing up plays that put him in his comfort zone.

    Much like the other struggling Hornets, Rivers has time to turn things around. The defense and the assists are promising, but the team needs him to step it up on the offensive end.

PF Ryan Anderson

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 14.0 PPG, 8.0 RPG

    Grade: B+

    Ryan Anderson has been an excellent acquisition thus far for the Hornets. He leads the team in rebounds and is third in scoring. He has filled in admirably with Anthony Davis out with a concussion and he has brought the offensive production the team had hoped for when the acquired him over the summer.

    There are a couple things that kept this grade from being higher, however. First, while Anderson has never been known for being a great defender, his defensive numbers leave a lot to be desired. You can't give high marks to a big man who can't block shots.

    Anderson could also stand to raise his shooting percentages. 33 percent from behind the arc isn't terrible for a 6'10" power forward, but it isn't unreasonable to expect better from last year's leader in three-pointers. Anderson's field goal percentage could also be better than 39.5 percent.

    Anderson played well in his lone start this season, notching 12 points and 13 rebounds filling in for Anthony Davis against Chicago. It will be interesting to see how the team utilizes Anderson once Davis comes back. With a slight improvement to his shooting percentages, Anderson could be a deadly weapon off the bench as the team's sixth man.

    For the most part, Anderson has lived up to his billing. He scores in the paint or from the outside and is an excellent rebounder. His physicality in the post against Chicago was nice to see, especially going up against one of the game's best interior defenders in Joakim Noah.

    Once the team is fully healthy, this lineup could be very scary. With shooters like Anderson and Eric Gordon on the outside and Anthony Davis in the paint, the Hornets will force teams to pick their poison. For now, Anderson has done an excellent job picking up the slack with the team's two best weapons still on the mend.

C Robin Lopez

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 14.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.0 BPG

    Grade: A-

    What's not to like about Robin Lopez's first regular season as a New Orleans Hornet? Lopez was always a solid rebounder and shot-blocker, dating back to his days at the University of Stanford. This season, however, Lopez has showed off his scoring touch. With 14.3 points per game, he's just slightly behind Anthony Davis as the team's leading scorer.

    The increased offensive production hasn't been overlooked by his head coach.

    "I've always liked him because he's a defense-first center," head coach Monty Williams told Hornets.com's Jim Eichenhofer. "I've been really happy with his offensive output here."

    Lopez leads the team in blocked shots, averaging two a game. He had four blocks in the team's win over Chicago. When Anthony Davis returns to the lineup, he and Lopez will form an impressive defensive tandem in the paint. Davis and Lopez will also do damage on the boards, as they both have a combined average of 14.2 rebounds per game.

    Lopez's scoring gives the team an option in the paint. While Davis has been better than initially expected offensively, he's still a bit raw. Having an alternative like Lopez on the inside gives the team more flexibility. Lopez's work ethic has made teammates take notice.

    "I love his energy, he's so energetic," said point guard Greivis Vasquez (according to NOLA.com's John Reid). "He works and he fights. I like that. I look up to him because he doesn't take a play off."

    The fact that Lopez's hustle inspires others is a promising sign for a Hornets team that needs a leader. This young team can learn a lot from a hustler like Lopez. The big man has emerged as a solid two-way player and the team needs him to keep up his strong play on both ends of the court as the season progresses.

SF Al-Farouq Aminu

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 13.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 1.7 BPG

    Grade: B+

    Like Robin Lopez, Al-Farouq Aminu's main contribution to this team was expected to come on the defensive end. Just like the surprising big man, Aminu has lived up to the hype at that end of the court. The former Wake Forest star leads the team in steals and barely trails Lopez for the team lead in blocks.

    However, as with Lopez, Aminu has been surprisingly good offensively. He scored double-digit points in the team's first two games and has become more aggressive attacking the basket. Aminu's new approach on offense was on full display in the team's opener against San Antonio.

    "I was just trying to use my athleticism," said Aminu after the game (courtesy of TheAdvocate.com). "trying to get to the bucket in order to put pressure on the defense from the 3 position."

    Aminu came into training camp as the incumbent starter at the small forward position. After a poor start shooting the ball in the preseason, he faced some competition from Lance Thomas. There seems to be no question whose the starting small forward now.

    "If he can play like that consistently," said head coach Monty Williams, referring to Aminu's 17-point performance against the Spurs. "we will be really pleased."

    So, why isn't Aminu's grade higher despite his improved play on both ends of the court?

    Aminu still has some areas he can improve in. While he seems to find comfort as a slasher and using his athleticism to attack the rim, it would benefit Aminu to become a better shooter. Also, if he's going to rely so heavily on providing offense via driving to the hoop, he's going to need to shoot better from the charity stripe. Currently, he's shooting 50 percent from the free throw line.

    Aminu has been an impressive surprise on a team that has been filled with breakout stars. The hope, after emerging as a solid defender late last season and in the Olympics for Team Nigeria, was that Aminu would be the team's perimeter stopper. So far, he's been more than that.

    With a few tweaks here and there, he can become a more complete player and give the team another young piece to build around.

SG Eric Gordon

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: n/a

    Grade: Incomplete

    It is amazing that the Hornets have managed a 2-1 record with franchise shooting guard Eric Gordon yet to play a second of meaningful basketball for the team. Gordon has participated in all of one practice so far this season before suffering a setback to the troublesome knee that sidelined him for most of last season.

    According to Yahoo! Sports' Marc J. Spears, Gordon will be out another four to six weeks as he continues to nurse his surgically-repaired right knee. This isn't what the Hornets were hoping for when it decided to match Phoenix's four-year, $58 million offer over the summer. The team took a careful approach with the fragile Gordon during the preseason, keeping him out of most of the team's practices and all exhibition games.

    Apparently, they weren't careful enough.

    Gordon's inability to stay healthy is well-documented. He played all of nine games for the Hornets last year after coming over in the Chris Paul trade. He's missed 107 games in his four-year career, not including the three he's missed already this season.

    Gordon is the team's best player and offensive weapon. Even with guys like Robin Lopez and Al-Farouq Aminu stepping up their scoring output, they don't bring the kind of offensive reliability that Gordon does. Still, the question remains whether the former Clipper will ever live up to expectations in the Big Easy.

    For now, the Hornets are in a familiar position with their franchise centerpiece. Much like they did last season, they'll play the waiting game with Gordon until he's finally ready to make his debut. The team has done fine so far without him, but they'd be wise not to press their luck.

    If the Hornets are going to make a run at the playoffs, they'll need Gordon on the court to help carry them.

PG Greivis Vasquez

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 13.0 PPG, 9.7 APG, 4.7 RPG

    Grade: A

    Greivis Vasquez has been the Hornets' MVP as well as one of the league's breakout stars so far. His last-second layup against Utah sealed New Orleans' first win of the season. His 18 points against Chicago helped pave the way to a Hornets victory over the Bulls and he could have clinched a win over the Spurs had he hit a wide-open three late in the game.

    Vasquez has always been a strong facilitator, which is evidenced in him nearly averaging 10 assists per game. The willingness to pick up some of the offensive slack with guys like Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis out of the lineup is promising for the Hornets. With its two best players out, the team needed guys to step up and Vasquez has answered the call admirably.

    With his unique size at 6'6", it's not much of a surprise that he's able to put up decent rebounding numbers. On a team with so many good rebounders, it is impressive that there are enough loose balls around for Vasquez to average nearly five rebounds per game.

    There are some flaws in Vasquez's game that need to be worked on. First, while his assists per game are more than triple the average of his turnovers, Vasquez needs to be more careful with the basketball. He's currently averaging three turnovers per game.

    Another element that needs some work is Vasquez's outside shooting. A good starting point guard with as much time and space as Vasquez had on that missed three against the Spurs should be able to hit that shot consistently. He's going to need to shoot better than 25 percent from behind the arc.

    All in all, Vasquez has been great. His assist numbers are particularly impressive given the lack of proven scorers on the team and you can't argue much with scoring output. He still has a long way to go, however.

PF Anthony Davis

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    2012-13 Regular Season Statistics: 14.5 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 1.0 SPG

    Grade: A-

    Anthony Davis has been every bit as good as advertised. Defensively, he is getting his share of blocks and steals. He shows an aggressiveness when contesting shots and he is a big part of a unit that has the chance to be very good on the defensive end.

    On the glass, he's done a good job of using his athleticism and length to grab boards at a solid rate. He has great poise and his time as the face of this Hornets franchise may be coming sooner rather than later.

    Davis' biggest development can be seen in his offense. For a player as young and raw as the 19-year-old Davis, he's progressing considerably as a scorer. He's not only getting his share of points through the obvious dunks and shots close to the rim, but he's also showing the willingness to step outside the paint and utilize his jumper.

    A concussion early in the win against Utah has robbed us from watching Davis develop even further. He missed his return to his hometown of Chicago to play the Bulls over the weekend and he isn't expected to play in the Hornets' next game against Philadelphia.

    As of right now, there's no timetable for the return of "The Unibrow". Davis remains under evaluation, but practiced with the team as recently as Monday.

    Going forward, Davis looks like he'll be going head-to-head with Portland's Damian Lillard for the Rookie of the Year honors. The summer in London with Team USA seems to have shortened Davis' learning curve and the advanced development has shown in his early play.

    Once the team gets Davis and guard Eric Gordon back, it will be interesting to see what this team's ceiling is. For now, it appears Davis is living up to the hype.