Former UCLA star Darren Collison quickly sheds rookie baggage with Hornets – LA Times

By David Wharton
Los Angeles Times

No one told Darren Collison about the pink carry-on bag.

And no one mentioned that his transition to professional basketball would involve bringing along this girlish luggage whenever his team hits the road.

“The Barbie doll bag,” he said. “That’s our rookie initiation.”

Hazing from veteran teammates isn’t the only thing that caught Collison by surprise in his first season with the New Orleans Hornets.

Injuries to All-Star guard Chris Paul have thrust the former UCLA Bruin into the starting lineup, an unexpected promotion that has produced unexpected results.

Taking over at the point, Collison has averaged about 18 points, nine assists and three rebounds as a starter, good enough to earn Western Conference rookie-of-the-month honors for February.

“We’re asking him to do many, many things that you ask a veteran guard to do,” New Orleans Coach Jeff Bower recently told reporters. “Putting him in those positions . . . he’s handling everything terrific.”

Now, with Paul still recovering from knee surgery, Collison has a chance to show his game to family and friends when New Orleans faces the Clippers at Staples Center on Monday night.

“It came so quick and soon,” he said of a key role in the pros. “I felt like I had the confidence, it was a matter of opportunity.”

Not that the Rancho Cucamonga native claims to have the NBA figured out. There have been off nights and too many losses, the Hornets slipping further and further out of playoff contention.

Still, it’s hard to argue with his numbers so far. They are a testament, he believes, to four years of intense, defense-first basketball under Coach Ben Howland at UCLA.

His time in Westwood also included three trips to the Final Four and plenty of pressure situations.

“Just having that toughness and competitiveness and spirit,” he said. “That’s what you do in the NBA is compete with the best of them.”

While the talent level is obviously higher at the next level, Collison has found one aspect of the pro game more to his liking.

At UCLA, opponents often sat back and packed the lane, daring the Bruins to shoot from outside. The NBA’s defensive three-second rule prevents big bodies from camping inside, allowing more room to penetrate.

That translates into more opportunities for Collison to create off the dribble.

“He ran the team well,” Charlotte Bobcats guard Raymond Felton said of Collison after playing New Orleans in early February. “He hit big shots when he needed to and made plays when he needed to.”

This combination has produced other highlight moments.

As in 35 points at Dallas and 20 assists against Golden State. Collison’s first NBA triple-double helped nudge the Hornets past Indiana.

“That is an amazing thing,” Pacers forward Danny Granger said. “He’s going to be a good player in this league.”

But it could be that teams are starting to adjust to the rookie. In a loss to Oklahoma City and former Bruins teammate Russell Westbrook last week, the Thunder pestered Collison into three-for-14 shooting.

“They were waiting for me to get into the paint, making sure I gave the ball up instead of creating,” he said. “They wanted someone else to create.”

Though Collison had a few months to study Paul from the bench, there is still a gap in his NBA knowledge, nights when he doesn’t have answers for everything that opposing defenses throw at him.

“I have to move without the ball, go to different spots,” he said. “I have to adjust and do different things.”

That’s the challenge for NBA rookies, especially at point guard. A learning experience.

Sort of like carrying around the pink bag.

Updated March 14, 2010