NEW ORLEANS — With just four players returning from last season and the second-youngest lineup in the NBA, the Hornets knew they faced a challenging 2012-13 season.
Add to that injuries — including a long stretch without their most significant player — coach Monty Williams and his staff having to install their comprehensive defensive system to an inexperienced group that hadn’t played together and one of the league’s most difficult schedules, and struggle the Hornets (19-34) have.
But with the league at its midseason milepost, the All-Star break, Williams said there’s a lot to be encouraged by.
“I’ve always been encouraged by the way our guys compete,” he said. “We’ve thrown a young group into tough situations all year long, and they’ve responded. That’s something we can use in the future.”
NBA coaches say one of the most difficult things is teaching young players to give maximum effort every game. Williams said that was particularly true of the Hornets, who don’t have a roster full of marquee talent and were without guard Eric Gordon, their franchise player, heading into the season.
The first 53 games also featured 32 matchups with teams that made the playoffs last season; the Hornets went 10-22. And New Orleans had losing streaks of seven and 11 games.
Injuries dented an already thin lineup. Losses were the result, as were difficulties in developing chemistry. Hornets players missed 57 games to injuries, including Gordon missing the first 29 with a perplexing patella disorder and knee bruise. He returned Dec. 29.
After going 6-23 without Gordon, the Hornets are 13-11 since, including 10-8 in games he played. He has sat out the second of back-to-back games.
Anthony Davis, the top pick in last year’s draft, missed 13 games — two with a mild concussion and 11 for a stress reaction in his left ankle as the team understandably was cautious. The Hornets were 3-10 in those games.
And center Jason Smith, a key reserve, missed seven games from Dec. 14-26 with a torn right labrum that he will try to play through the rest of the season. The Hornets were 1-6 in those games.
Lacking offensive punch and cohesiveness, the Hornets had a nagging penchant for bad quarters. They had 21 losses when they suffered through a quarter in which they scored 20 or fewer points, including two or more in 12 defeats.
But there are reasons for hope heading into the season’s final stretch. The Hornets’ record with Gordon is one, as is that the team won four of its final five games heading into the break.
Williams said he is encouraged by the improved play of Davis, point guard Greivis Vasquez, center Robin Lopez, forward Ryan Anderson and rookie guard Austin Rivers.
“Greivis has had a year that nobody thought he’d have,” Williams said.
Eighteen of the Hornets’ final 29 games are at home. Seventeen of the 29 are against teams vying for a playoff berth.
“I think the second half for us will really play out a lot better,” Vasquez said. “We have a healthy roster, and we’ve already played through a lot of mistakes. We lost some games we shouldn’t have lost, played some bad games, and now it’s out of our system. I like this break, but I wish we could continue to play — because now is when we’re peaking.”
Breaking down the Hornets’ first half, position by position:
GUARD: Vasquez surges
Vasquez, third in the league at 9.4 assists per game, is making a strong case for the NBA’s Most Improved Player Award. Part of that development comes from the experience he has gotten as a starter after coming off the bench his first two years.
Vasquez has said Gordon’s presence provides more driving lanes and prevents opponents from double-teaming him. Williams said Vasquez is the team’s most competitive player, and his ability to drive is key.
Gordon’s return has been a huge lift, but his inability to play every game has hurt his consistency and the team’s. Still, his drives and top-dog mentality give the team confidence. It remains to be seen how his health issues unfold; the team said he missed the last game before the break with a sprained right hand.
Rivers has been another beneficiary of Gordon’s play. After just one year at Duke, he simply was not ready to be cast into the starting lineup from the season opener. But he has watched Gordon intently and picked up on some of his nuances, he said, most notably the importance of changing speeds and how to set up defenders.
A hard worker in practice who has tried to keep his confidence up, Rivers also has benefited from Williams’ coaching and the professionalism and wisdom of 10-year veteran Roger Mason Jr., who has advised him to take the pressure off himself. The result is a 20-year-old guard playing much more under control and who attacks the basket more effectively. In the past seven games, he has shot 18-of-38 (47.4 percent) and has just 10 turnovers. His defense also has improved.
Mason is a strong outside shooter suited for providing a spark. Backup point guard Brian Roberts has gotten better at running the team. And he has shown an ability to hit big shots, which is why he was signed.
FORWARD: Anderson cashing in
Davis had 21 points and 11 rebounds against Portland All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge in the final game before the break. He has had 26 games of double-figure scoring, 12 games of double-figure rebounding and nine double-doubles. Averaging 12.5 points and 7.5 rebounds, he is having a solid rookie campaign despite the time lost.
Williams is pleased with the development of Al-Farouq Aminu, a power forward converted to small forward because of his athletic ability and lack of size. Aminu leads the team in rebounding at 7.5 per game and of late has shown improved offense working with lead assistant Randy Ayers. Williams wants to see more consistency, but in the last year of his contract, Aminu likely has earned another one with the Hornets.
At 16.8 points per game, Anderson is the team’s leading scorer, and he leads the NBA with 159 3-pointers. Just as important are his versatility and feisty play. Not a big power forward, he fights under the boards. Of late, he has fired up the team, particularly Davis, with his drives to the basket, finishing with dunks.
He entered the break on a tear, shooting 42.9 percent on 3s in those games. He has been an outstanding offseason pickup, particularly for the four years and $34 million he’s signed for.
CENTER: Need more from Lopez
During the eight games before the Portland first-half finale, Lopez averaged 16.3 points on 63 percent shooting and 6.5 rebounds, up from season averages of 11.7 and 5.5.
And Williams is ecstatic over Lopez’s defense of late. Obtained in a trade with Phoenix last summer in large part because he is a strong 7-footer, Lopez has improved defensively, Williams said, because his conditioning is better and he has a better understanding of the team’s schemes and pace. Although not a high jumper, he still is an adequate shot-blocker, he clogs the lane and he’s able to muscle in the low post.
Still, Williams often mentions the team’s lack of a post-up option, and those 5.5 rebounds are not impressive.
Smith brings a hard edge to the team and is an invaluable reserve who can play center and power forward. He gives the team a quicker option at center and is adept at the pick-and-pop with Vasquez and Roberts.
BENCH: A contributing factor
With Anderson and Smith leading the way, Hornets reserves outscored the opponents’ backups in 35 games, averaging 36.8 points.
Williams said he would like to see improvement from 2012 second-round pick Darius Miller, a small forward who spent a stint in the NBA Development League, and swingman Xavier Henry, whom the coaches have spent a lot of time trying to get up to speed.
COACH: Hard to ask for much more
Williams is a rising star. Coaching a team that almost always has less talent than its opponent, he usually has the players well-prepared.
Rooted in defense, his principles are solid, and he and his staff have proved to be excellent in developing the team’s young talent. He also has shown to be good with plays coming out of timeouts.
One drawback is the Hornets’ bad quarters. And it’s not just because of the team’s inexperience. Williams readily will admit he had the same problem — although not to this degree — with the more veteran team that featured All-Star point guard Chris Paul.
OVERVIEW: Just keep it going
Offensively, the Hornets have been crisper, and they are defending better, too. But they have to prove their improved play is not a mirage.
The first part of the season can be divided into two parts: BG and AG, or before Gordon returned and after. Now that it has Gordon back, this team believes its true nature is the latter.