Hornets continue road swing in Phoenix (Mar 02, 2017)

The Charlotte Hornets will have their good luck charm on hand Thursday night when they continue a Western swing against the Phoenix Suns.

Big man Cody Zeller returned from a six-game absence to contribute six points and five rebounds off the bench to Tuesday’s 109-104 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.

The win made the Hornets 23-17 in games in which Zeller has played this season.

They are 3-17 when he’s been out of the lineup, most recently with a quad strain.

Zeller has started 37 games, but might have trouble regaining his front-line position. That’s because his replacement, Frank Kaminsky, has been one of the hottest players in the league in recent weeks.

Kaminsky had 24 points and 12 rebounds Tuesday against the Lakers, increasing his averages to 19.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in his last 10 games.

Not counted in those numbers was a spectacular performance in the Rising Stars Challenge on All-Star Weekend, when he poured in 33 points.

“I’m a ‘confidence’ player,” Kaminsky told The Charlotte Observer on Tuesday. “And I’ve got a whole lot of confidence right now.”

Despite Kaminsky’s sensational run and the return of Zeller, the Hornets find themselves struggling to keep up in the Eastern playoff chase. They have lost 13 of 16 to drop out of playoff position with just 22 games remaining.

But 13 of those 16 games were played without Zeller.

Two of Charlotte’s remaining 22 games will be against the worst of the West, the Phoenix Suns, who completed a 3-9 February with a winless three-game trip to Chicago, Milwaukee and Memphis.

The trip featured a new look for the Suns, who benched veterans Tyson Chandler and Brandon Knight, and gave youngsters Alan Williams, Tyler Ulis and Derrick Jones Jr. increased playing time.

The new look wasn’t a winning one, but Williams surely has taken advantage. He recorded career highs in two consecutive games — 16 points at Chicago, then 17 points at Milwaukee — while averaging 14.7 points and 7.0 rebounds on the trip.

“We have to start putting together a clear, transparent, solid vision of our group,” Suns coach Earl Watson explained to reporters Wednesday, “and saying, ‘This is Step 1 of moving in the right direction,’ and start building with a purpose.”

Williams also had a career-high-tying 15 rebounds in Sunday’s loss at Milwaukee.

Ulis played at least 13 minutes in each of the three games on the trip and saved his best for last. He had a career-high seven assists to complement nine points Tuesday at Memphis.

Watson also has found additional time for fellow rookie Jones, the runner-up in the dunk competition on All-Star Weekend.

Jones has accumulated 22 points and six rebounds in his last four games, after totaling just five points and one rebound in Phoenix’s first 56 games.

Watson said informing Chandler and Knight of their new statuses wasn’t as difficult as one might imagine.

“One thing about the NBA is: Players are fine if you tell them the truth,” the second-year coach noted. “It’s difficult for any basketball player, but everybody’s been professional.”