Robin Lopez trade pays early dividends for Hornets

NEW ORLEANS — The Hornets’ front office and coaches felt center Robin Lopez could give the team a physical defensive presence in the lane.

What they didn’t expect, however, was scoring. That has been a bonus, particularly with rookie power forward Anthony Davis still out going through evaluations after getting a mild concussion in Friday’s game against Utah and missing Saturday’s game at Chicago, his hometown.

Lopez has shown more than he had before the Hornets obtained him this past offseason in a trade with the Phoenix Suns. With the Suns, he averaged 5.8 points during four seasons. Three games into his Hornets career, he is averaging 14.3, scoring in a variety of ways.

“He’s been able to finish around the basket, he’s knocking down jump shots,” said coach Monty Williams as his team (2-1) prepared to meet the Philadelphia 76ers (1-2) Wednesday at New Orleans Arena. “And, he’s so big and strong, he can be a tough cover at times because of his ability to pass and make decisions.”

Lopez’s offensive emergence comes at a good time with Davis out. And, he can be a key tonight against Philadelphia. The 76ers are still without center Andrew Bynum, who is still waiting for his knee to heal after undergoing a procedure during the offseason. And, backup Kwame Brown left Monday night’s loss to New York with a strained left calf, an injury that has plagued him since training camp.

The 76ers appear in good hands with Spencer Hawes in the middle but now are a little thin in the middle.

Nonetheless, the Hornets, and Lopez, are preparing for another physical encounter.

“Playing a physical big-man game, that has always been exciting for me.”

Lopez, who scored 16 points in the Hornets’ big road victory against Chicago on Sunday, shrugs off his new-found offense.

“It’s just being in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Williams said part of that is true. However, it’s been Lopez’s ability to read the defense and be where he’s supposed to be that has provided the opportunities.

Williams said Lopez is also a diligent worker, which was seconded by point guard Greivis Vasquez. Vasquez noticed the center defending against Lopez would commit to Vasquez too much on the pick-and-roll. Vasquez said he told Lopez to shoot the ball sometimes.

Lopez began working on short and mid-range shots in practice and now can hit those shots in games.

Lopez enjoys that his offense is helping the team, especially with Davis out. However, he said he’s not concerned about offense.

“I’m just worried about doing my thing on the defensive end,” he said.

The Hornets rank fourth in the league in points allowed per game at 89.0 and are tied for third in field goal percentage defense. Although Williams doesn’t put too much stock into the stat, he said, because it’s still early yet, Lopez’s defensive play in the lane has been a big plus.

“Sometimes he blocks a shot, sometimes he’ll distract it, and that’s just as valuable to us,” Williams said. “When those guards get in (the lane) and shoot those floaters, Robin can make those guys shoot maybe 2 feet higher, and that gives us the opportunity to rebound.”

The Hornets are hoping Lopez can be effective in that way tonight. Sixers guard Jrue Holiday is adept at getting to the basket. Williams said it will take more than Lopez.

“(Holiday) really attacks it,” Williams said. “He can shoot, and he can rise up off the floor with his athletic ability. It’s certainly going to be a team effort to keep him out of the paint and force them to take one shot.”

Even though the 76ers were blown out in their past two games by the New York Knicks, Holiday had 14 points and 11 assists in the first meeting and 17 points and eight assists in the second.

Vasquez said he is very familiar with Holiday from having faced him in college and the NBA.

“He’s very quick,” Vasquez said. “I’ll try to use my length against him and just compete.”

The 76ers also boast capable perimeter players Evan Turner, Dorell Wright and Thaddeus Young, who was born in New Orleans but grew up in Memphis. However, Hawes, a rugged player, bears watching. He had 16 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks in an opening night win against Denver.

However, the Hornets have been effective using a physical style from the start of games this season, and say they are ready for another such game against Philadelphia, which also plays a physical style and is third in the league in points allowed per game at 87.5.

Williams said it’ll be another toe-to-toe battle. Vasquez said the team is ready to feed off Lopez.

“I love his energy,” Vasquez said. “He works, he fights. He goes for a rebound, he fights. He helps out on defense. He doesn’t take a play off. That’s contagious.”