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The Chris Paul Vacuum

When Chris Paul tore his left meniscus at the end of January, most people figured that the Hornets were doomed, especially when it was revealed that CP3 would miss up to two months after surgery. And it was with good reason; for the last five seasons, Paul has been the heart, soul and engine of the Hornets. This year was even turning out to be Paul's best shooting season, as he made 50% of his shots from the field and 42% of his threes. On top of that, Paul leads the league with 11.2 assists per game and is second in the league in steals. Fantasy owners and Hornets fans alike had to wonder the same thing: who would step up in Paul's absence?

The answer, interestingly enough, has come in the form of two rookies: Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, neither of whom went in the top 20 of last year's draft. In fact Thornton's drafting was more seen as a "Hornets grab local boy" public relations move than anything, as he hails from Baton Rouge and went to LSU. But it's been these two rookies, more than anyone else on the New Orleans roster, who have stepped up in Paul's absence. Collison won the Rookie of the Month award for February by posting 21.6 points and 8.3 assists per game. The only other rookie over the last 25 years to post scoring and assist numbers that high in the same month was Allen Iverson. Thornton was no slouch, averaging 18.8 points and shooting 43% from three, even while missing a few games with a back injury. Thornton even broke the team record for points in a quarter in last week's loss to Cleveland.

Both players have also put up secondary numbers that make each of them strong fantasy pickups. Collison averaged 1.8 steals per game in February, and shot 82% from the free throw line. Thornton shot 83% from the stripe, and is at 40% from three on the year. Both players certainly have their flaws - Collison's 4.8 turnovers per game in February and Thornton's low assist and rebound numbers - but for two late-drafted rookies seeing some of the first significant minutes of their careers, it's certainly an encouraging start.

The looming question, of course, is whether this strong play will end when Paul returns. Paul's return should affect Collison the most. Collision has a similar skill set as Paul, plays the same position, and his size (6'0") doesn't translate well to anywhere but the point guard spot. Still, I wouldn't be shocked to see Collison still get 20-25 minutes per game once Paul returns, if only as a reward for his strong February and to help ease Paul back into the lineup. Moreover, Collison's excellent play last month could open the door for New Orleans to shop Paul before he becomes a free agent in the summer of 2011, allowing the Hornets to get something for Paul before he leaves town.

Thornton however may end up being the backcourt complement that Paul has always wanted. Thornton's predecessors - Desmond Mason, Bobby Jackson, Jannero Pargo, Morris Peterson - haven't exactly been massive offensive threats that draw defensive attention away from Paul. Thornton however, with his ability to score in bursts, is just what the Hornets, and Paul, have long needed. Even in his role off the bench, Thornton has put up two 30-point games in the last week, and against Cleveland and San Antonio no less. It only seems a matter of time until he wrests the starting role away from Peterson and is allowed to really let his talents fly while playing next to Paul.

Given these circumstances, I'd say that Thornton may actually be the better fantasy investment for the long run. He shoots well, will have more open looks when Paul returns, and his rebound (and possibly assist) numbers should increase with a starting role. Collison had a great February, and I don't doubt that he'll continue to play well when Paul returns. But Thornton has the talent and plays just the right position to become even more of a breakout star when Paul returns. Not too bad for a local kid.

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