NEW ORLEANS — Those distinctive light-brown eyes seemed to be dancing as he flashed that child-on-Christmas-Day smile.
This was no ordinary stop on the NBA schedule, and Chris Duhon had particular reason to be happy. Duhon, the
McDonald’s Player of the Year as a senior at Salmen High School in Slidell, was back home — and as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, a rock-star experience for a player.
Just as important, if temporary, he was in the starting lineup — ironically a key piece for a point guard who was a throw-in to make the trade of center Dwight Howard to the team work.
Right now, though, his mind was on the immediate present.
“It’s just good to be back home with family and friends,” Duhon said before the start of Wednesday’s game against the New Orleans Hornets. “There’s more than 50 of them out there (in the stands). I always play well at home.”
He did. Duhon scored just three points, but he only took three shots. More importantly, he had 10 assists and zero turnovers in 33 minutes. Four of his assists came during the second quarter as the Lakers rallied from an eight-point deficit within to one point of the lead in the final 2:35, setting the stage for the team’s third-quarter takeover and victory.
“He played great,” said Mike D’Antoni, who’s coaching Duhon for the second time in their careers. “He ran the team well, took care of the ball. He’s been good. I thought he played great (the previous game) against Houston.”
It was Duhon’s second consecutive start since D’Antoni — who took over for fired Mike Brown on Nov. 12 — opted for him over Darius Morris to steady the team during this crucial early transition period.
Former league MVP Steve Nash, who had played for Brown with the Phoenix Suns, was signed by the Lakers on July 11 to give the team a desperately needed high-level ball-handler and orchestrator of their offense.
But Nash has been sidelined with a broken fibula, and backup point guard Steve Blake will be out eight weeks recovering from surgery.
Although Nash’s return is said to be imminent, Duhon is making a case for a permanent role with the team this season.
Nash, who signed a two-year contract, is 38 and has a history of back ailments. He also is a notoriously bad defensive player in a league in which point guards are the new-era catalysts.
And Blake, a good shooter, is more of a combo guard than a pure point, not as adept as Duhon at running the offense and penetrating the lane for assists.
In his ninth year as a pro, Duhon said although the trade made him part of a crowd at his position, it also gave him a tremendous opportunity at this stage of his career.
“I knew Orlando had to make a decision on what route they wanted to go, and I knew I most probably would be a part of that package,” said Duhon, who was the starting point guard as a freshman when Duke won the NCAA title in 2001. “But I understood the talent that would be in this locker room and that playing for the championship would be everybody’s expectation. So I’m definitely excited to be a part of a team that has the opportunity to actually win a championship.”
For Duhon, it’s the latest in a career that has seen him often in transition but also land on his feet. Despite finishing as Duke’s career leader in steals and second in assists, he was a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls, where he won the starting job as a rookie.
But he has gone from Chicago to New York, where he played two years under D’Antoni and had his best season in 2008-09, to Orlando, which signed him to a four-year, $15 million contract before the 2010-11 season to give the Magic more of a traditional point guard to go along with Jameer Nelson, who is more of a scorer.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” said Duhon, who scored big in his hometown with charity work over the years, most notably providing more than $450,000 in relief supplies after Hurricane Katrina. “It’s been a great journey. Obviously, before I retire, I’d like to win a championship. That’s a goal.”
Certainly another reason for a big smile.
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