Despite being an emerging star in his own right, the Hornets' Chris Paul isn't too proud to pick up a few pointers from others - such as rival and friend Deron Williams of Utah.

"We know each other so well, and we talk so often, that when I'm at home, and I'm watching League Pass, and I see his ball screen coming, I can sort of tell when he's going to go behind his back, and fake the guy, or cross him over," Paul said last week. "I can sort of see when he's about to score before it happens."

Phoenix's Steve Nash is still kicking at 33, and the Spurs' Tony Parker has three championship rings. But Williams and Paul, taken third and fourth overall, respectively, in the 2005 draft, are poised to become the next great point-guard duo out west, following the legacies of John Stockton and Gary Payton, who defined the position in the 1990s.

Williams helped lead Utah to the Western Conference finals last season. This season looks like Paul's turn, with the 22-year-old taking his game to new levels of dominance for New Orleans, which is challenging the traditional Texas powers in the Southwest Division with an 18-10 start entering play Friday.

With the Hornets finally healthy after suffering numerous injuries the last few seasons, Paul - third in the league in assists at 10 per game - can either kick it out to scorers like Peja Stojakovic or David West, or kill you himself, as evidenced by his near 26-points per game average in December, and his 40-point night this week against Memphis, his second 40-point game this month.

"My first two years, every time I shot it, I felt like I had to make it," Paul said. "A lot of things just come a lot easier now. . . . I approach every game trying to see where the mismatch may be or where our strong point may be."

But most nights, it's Paul who has the biggest mismatch. He gets anywhere he wants on the floor, and no one player can stay in front of him for long.

"I was surprised with Chris's work ethic," said Hornets guard Morris Peterson, who came from Toronto via free agency last summer.

"I knew he was good," Peterson continued. "But I come in, he's the first guy in practice. First guy down to lift weights. Stays after. That's what really impressed me. You don't see too many guys like that, who almost got everything that you can have, gift-wise as a basketball player, and he [works] like a marginal talent."

With his looks and personality, the affable Paul has become the face of the franchise. Few teams have needed so much cosmetic surgery.

Stability has not been a trademark of the Hornets of late. They have dealt with tragedy and uncertainty for most of this decade.

A promising team in Charlotte lost its emotional center when forward Bobby Phills was killed in an automobile accident in 2000. Majority owner George Shinn and minority owner Ray Woolridge - who has since sold his stake - fought for control of the franchise for years.

Ownership alienated much of the political, economic and religious base in Charlotte just as it began demanding a new arena from that base. The city told the team to get lost, and fans stayed away by the thousands when the Hornets indicated they would relocate to New Orleans in 2003.

After two seasons in front of middling crowds, the Hornets had to evacuate New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit, moving to Oklahoma City. The hurricane dislocated Hornets families just as it did so many others in New Orleans, with many employees, players and coaches keeping their families back home to help with the cleanup while they found work - in their case, 733 miles to the northwest.

"When we would travel here [for a handful of games in 2005 and 2006], a lot of times, it would be an away game for us," Paul said. "We were coming in the night before the game just like the team we were playing against."

At NBA commissioner David Stern's insistence, the franchise was always destined to return to the Big Easy. So far this season, fans have not reconnected; the Hornets are last in the league in attendance.

But the impact of the team's return is much more telling on the ground than on any ledger. Paul, who lives downtown, sees it up close.

"The city's really welcomed us back," Paul said. "Just every night here at the games, seeing fans when we're out and about. They might see you in your car, and they just might yell 'go Hornets,' or 'CP3, we love you.' Even before the season, we were out in the community, and just seeing the love that the fans showed us was something really special."