NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The plan called for first-round draft pick Darren Collison to spend his rookie season learning the NBA in a backup role behind Chris Paul.
The harsh reality is New Orleans will miss the playoffs if Collison is unable to produce in Paul-like fashion while the Hornets' three-time All-Star remains sidelined with a left knee injury.
Judging by the rookie's recent starts, the postseason may still be within New Orleans' reach in a couple of weeks, when Paul is expected to return from arthroscopic surgery he had on Feb. 4 for a meniscus tear.
Collison has averaged 23.6 points and 8.7 assists in his last six games, during which the Hornets have gone 4-2 and moved one game behind Portland for the eighth and final playoff berth in the Western Conference — and two games behind San Antonio for seventh.
"Whether they make the playoffs or don't make the playoffs, I think they had a heck of a draft," said Pacers coach Jim O'Brien, whose team lost to the Hornets last week when Collison recorded his first career triple-double. "Any time you have somebody out at the level of a Chris Paul and you're able to still maintain a certain level, I think it's a credit to their coaches and certainly a credit to the guy that's filling in."
Paul, who has played in 38 of the Hornets' 56 games this season, has averaged 20.4 points and 11.2 assists.
During New Orleans' last 10 games, Paul has been on the sideline in a suit, acting like Collison's personal coach. Paul is constantly in Collison's ear when the rookie comes to the bench.
"Sometimes I actually expect him to tell me to shut up or leave him alone, but he never does that," Paul said Monday before the Hornets left for a Tuesday night game at Cleveland. "He knows how badly I want to play and right now I'm sort of playing through him. So when I see him getting and-ones and make nice moves, that's why I'm off the bench and going nuts."
Collison, an agile ball-handler with exceptional quickness, has strung together a slew of highlight-worthy plays lately — everything from blow-by lay-ups to tough running floaters off the glass, breakaway dunks, clutch 3s and pinpoint alley-oop lobs.
"What I like about DC is, when he makes a mistake, he makes it at full speed. But that's exactly how he does damage, at full speed, shooting and getting the ball to the open man," Paul said. "I love it."
Collison was drafted 21st overall last summer after spending four years at UCLA and helping the Bruins reach three NCAA Final Fours. Hornets coach and general manager Jeff Bower said he was counting on Collison's maturity to help him be a quick study and reliable fill-in in his rookie season.
"The position calls for a lot of responsibility and what we've tried to emphasize is what the point guard position needs to do. Not what Darren needs to do," Bower said. "We didn't have a number placed on what his points would be or what his shooting would be. ... His numbers are a byproduct of his nature and his aggressiveness."
Collison said he never expected to play as much as he has, but wasn't about to shy away from the early chance to make his mark.
"This is the NBA; everybody gets hurt and somebody's got to step up and play that role," Collison said. "I'm just trying to take full advantage."
Collison said he considers himself and student of the game and worked hard at making the advice Paul gives him translate on the court.
"He's telling me who to hit, who to give the ball to at certain times," Collison said. "So it's like he's playing out there on the court and I'm just obeying what he's telling me to do, just listening, because I know at the end it's going to help us out."
Collison remains prone to rookie mistakes. He's turned the ball over 13 times in his last two games. Yet the Hornets seem willing to live with that, given how aggressively he plays.
In a victory over Houston on Sunday night, Collison had 26 points and nine assists. He turned the ball over five times, but compensated somewhat with four steals.
"He's fearless from what I've seen," Houston coach Rick Adelman said. "There's games where he's had a lot of turnovers and it doesn't phase him. He just keeps coming at you."
The Hornets have a difficult stretch of games coming up. Four of the next five teams they play — Cleveland, Orlando, Dallas and San Antonio — all currently occupy playoff spots.
It means more pressure on Collison, who doesn't seem to mind.
"Granted, Chris being out, I still feel like we've got pieces to win games," Collison said. "It would be nice if we got to the playoffs and Chris comes back. I think we definitely could make a push."