Brian Roberts, a St. John's Jesuit graduate who starred at the University of Dayton, gets fouled by Denver's Kenneth Faried. During a March game, Roberts collected 18 assists for New Orleans.
The old guy is making a strong case to be part of a new era.
All around Brian Roberts, the New Orleans Hornets are changing.
They transformed from wasps to water birds after last Wednesday’s season finale in officially becoming the New Orleans Pelicans. And soon the NBA’s second-youngest team promises to grow greener with a selection in the draft lottery.
Yet the roster’s resident graybeard — Roberts is 27 — may have shoved his way into their future.
The Hornets’ oldest regular enjoyed a rookie year that perhaps surpassed all expectations beyond his own.
After spending his first four professional seasons overseas, Roberts, a St. John’s Jesuit graduate and former Blade player of the year, decided last summer to give his American basketball dream one final chance.
Since then, he said, "Everything has just fallen into place."
Roberts earned an invitation to play for the Hornets’ summer league entry — one of about a dozen players fighting to fill the team’s last roster vacancies. Then he made the cut, broke into the rotation, and began demanding a long look from team officials.
Four games into his NBA career, Roberts scored 16 points on 7-of-8 shooting, and he only burnished the early impression from there. One night, the 6-foot-1, 180-pound point guard came four rebounds shy of a triple-double against the Los Angeles Clippers. Another night, March 25, he had 18 assists — two shy of the league’s single-game high this season and four more than the opposing Denver Nuggets had as a team in the Hornets’ 110-86 victory.
"That was pretty crazy," Roberts said in a phone interview. "That was something I never thought I could do, but that night, everything was clicking."
By the end of the season, the Hornets’ stand-in for starting point guard Greivis Vasquez was one of the league’s top backups, averaging 15.3 points, 7 assists, and 4.8 rebounds over the last four games.
"It’s just a blessing," said Roberts, who went undrafted out of Dayton and played the last three seasons in Bamberg, Germany. "I thank God every day that I’m able to play and perform here in the NBA, and it’s something that I don’t take for granted. I know that it’s something I appreciate a lot."
In many ways, the Hornets’ season could not end soon enough. They finished 27-55 — second-to-last in the Western Conference — as a procession of injuries slowed their full-blown rebuild. Their rookie first-round selections, Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, and starting guard Eric Gordon missed a combined 88 games.
Roberts, though, was among the silver linings.
"I was pleasantly surprised about Brian, with his play the last month, month and a half," Hornets coach Monty Williams told reporters.
In a career spent sneering at the odds, this year marked Roberts’ most improbable act yet. The player who was seen as too small by the big colleges and then the NBA — Roberts is the Hornets’ shortest player by 2 inches — averaged 7.1 points on 41.7 percent shooting and 2.8 assists in 78 games, with his production jumping to 12.6 points and 10 assists in five starts.
Roberts feels like he’s gained a foothold in the NBA, as do the Hornets. The question is whether it’s in New Orleans or elsewhere. Team officials will soon decide whether to exercise a one-year team option on Roberts for $788,872.
"He can play," Williams said recently. "It doesn’t happen if he doesn’t work hard, and he works his tail off. We’re just thankful that we can go to a guy like Brian in a pinch ... where he pays big minutes and he produces.
"He has the capability of being a backup point guard, there’s no question. A lot of it is just fit, if he fits right with what we’re doing going forward. That’s something we’ll have to evaluate this summer."
At the very least, Roberts has proven something to himself.
"As a kid growing up, every basketball player wants to try the NBA," Roberts said. "It’s every field. As a doctor or lawyer, you want to reach the pinnacle of your profession. So to be able to reach that and play well at this level, it’s not just gratifying, but it makes me feel good about all the hard work I’ve put in and all the long hours and the whole journey.
"It shows that it was worth something. I just thank God every day to be here, and I’m going to fight to stay here."
Contact David Briggs at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.