Marco Belinelli and Jason Smith are turning their careers around in New Orleans.
by Jonathan Santiago / @ITSjonsantiago
It’s taken three years and three trades between them, but their patience with the fickle business that is the NBA is finally paying off. The two players, considered afterthoughts when the New Orleans Hornets acquired them before training camp, have become integral parts of the Hornets’ recent resurgence.
Belinelli was drafted 18th overall by the Golden State Warriors and his sharpshooting skills looked to be a perfect fit for then head coach Don Nelson and his run-and-gun philosophy. Coming off their first winning season in nearly a decade-plus, Belinelli was considered the kind of young talent the Warriors needed to keep the ball rolling.
In his Summer League debut in Las Vegas, Belinelli dropped 37 points—ironically against the Hornets. From that point on, only good things could come, right?
Belinelli played sporadically in his first three years in the League. Out of a possible 246 regular season games, he only manged to play in 141 of them. And when Golden State traded him to Toronto for Devean George, it all but cemented his status as a first-round bust.
But here he is in his fourth NBA season, finally coming around. As a member of the Hornets, Belinelli has locked up the starting two-guard spot in the back-court with Chris Paul and is averaging career bests in points (12.5), minutes (29.2), field goal (44.5) and three-point (43.2) percentage.
He credits the confidence of the organization, his teammates and coaches for the new-found lease on his career. No longer bogged down by expectations, Belinelli says he’s simplified his approach to playing the game.
“For me, it’s just important I just do my job,” Belinelli said of what’s making things click in his third NBA stop. “(I’m) working everyday. (I) try to do better everyday. And on the court, I try to do my best every game.”
So why didn’t it work out with his previous two teams? Belinelli thinks his inexperience and youth were contributing factors. He was 21-years-old as a rookie, which nowadays are when most players are expected to hit their stride in the NBA. But one can’t count out the initial language and cultural barriers he faced during his first few seasons in the League.
It also helps feeling wanted, according to the fourth-year guard.
“I was so happy when they (the Raptors) traded me because I knew that this team would want me here,” Belinelli said. “So, that time I spoke with the coach, the general manager and some teammates and everybody was happy with me because they know not only (can I shoot) but that I can help this team on defense, too.”
Defense has been a key component of the Hornets’ early season success. And Belinelli’s teammate Jason Smith, who’s also reinvigorated his career, has fit right into their plans.
Smith was another first-round selection unable to show much his first few seasons in the League, mostly due to bad luck. Originally drafted by the Miami Heat two selections after Belinelli in 2007 then traded to the Philadelphia 76ers, Smith appeared in 76 games as a rookie. But during an off-season workout in August of 2008, misfortune struck and Smith tore his ACL, sidelining him for what would’ve been his sophomore season.
He made his return back to the court for Philadelphia last year. But with the emergence of fellow big man Marreese Speights, his playing time became limited. In late September of this year, he and guard Willie Green were shipped to New Orleans, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“The way I think of it is that it is a new beginning for me,” Smith said of the opportunity in the Crescent City. ”Now that I’m in New Orleans, everybody basically has a specific role. We all play good defense. But we all have to know our role on offense. And how we’re going to win games is if everybody buys into the system. And I think that we’ve all bought into the system.”
Like Belinelli, Smith is also taking a scaled-down approach to his basketball career. The fourth-year man out of Colorado State believes that playing to his strengths has helped solidify his place in the Hornets’ rotation.
“Really, I just go out there and play within myself,” Smith said. “He (Head Coach Monty Williams) knows that I can make the mid-range jumper and really just bring energy and a flame off the bench.”
Williams’ faith in these two unproven players has paid dividends thus far. But the first-year head coach won’t pretend he knew they were capable of contributing to the Hornets’ resurgence. Like many, he too didn’t know what to expect from Belinelli and Smith coming into training camp. But having a general understanding of both players’ strengths – Belinelli’s shooting capacity and Smith’s tenacity – warranted, at the very least, a look.
“I think guys,” Williams began, referring to Belinelli and Smith, “when they get consistent minutes, and they have talent and they work hard, usually will improve.”
And of course, playing alongside arguably the best point guard in the League can’t be overlooked either in the Belinelli and Smith reclamation projects. Both men had nothing but praise for the Hornets’ leader.
“I know that he can do whatever he wants with the ball,” Belinelli said of Chris Paul. “He can go in and find me in every situation on the court. So I just want to be ready to make shots.”
“I like to call him our general,” Smith said of Paul. “He’s an amazing player that goes out there and he’ll call out a play before even the team calls out a play. It’s just amazing to be out there with him because he’s kind of a step ahead, always keeping you going and keeping you a step ahead of what the other team is going to do and keeping you prepared to give you the best opportunity to win.”
Though much has been said of Paul’s frustration with the perceived lack-of-talent surrounding him in New Orleans, he’s embraced the challenge of integrating unheralded guys like Belinelli and Smith. Paul compared his two new teammates’ emergence as major contributors to a former teammate, who also had question-marks surrounding his arrival to the Big Easy.
“You know when Tyson Chandler came here a few years ago,” Paul began, “a few of his teammates were like ‘Man, he can’t catch, he can’t do this.’ (Now) look at him. You know what I mean?
“I love playing with guys who have something to prove and those two guys are huge, huge parts (as to) why we’re so successful right now,” Paul said of his two fourth-year teammates.
In the world of sports, where instant gratification reigns king, Belinelli and Smith are proving that patience can actually pay off. And with a surprising 12-5 record to start the season, the Hornets are reaping the rewards.
Jonathan Santiago also co-hosts the weekly Davis Sports Deli Podcast, which can be found here.