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Bill Haber, Associated Press
New Orleans Hornets' Chris Paul is averaging 20.8 points, 10.7 assists and 2.6 steals this season.

NEW ORLEANS — A woman at the cash register of a sports-themed shop frowned, shaking her head when asked how a new batch of New Orleans Hornets hats were selling.

Then she pointed to a rack of Chris Paul jerseys.

"We are selling some of those," she said.

The Hornets might need a transcendent star — like the Pittsburgh Penguins of the 1980s needed Mario Lemieux — to succeed in small-market New Orleans for longer than just a couple more years.

That could be Paul, the polite, engaging, baby-faced point guard whose torrid start to the season has begun to generate buzz around the NBA.

His numbers arguably are better than any other point guard in the league, and the upstart team he leads has kept pace with the giants of the Western Conference through half of this season.

"He's one of the guys in the NBA that people want to see," said Hornets forward David West, who's noticed growing numbers of fans wearing No. 3 jerseys and swarming for Paul's autograph, even when New Orleans plays on the road.

"The tempo he plays and the pace that he pushes the game, he makes the brand of basketball that we play a good style to watch," West added.

Paul and the Hornets will make their second and final visit of the season to Salt Lake City to face the Jazz on Monday night at EnergySolutions Arena.

The Hornets (32-13 through Thursday), who first joined the NBA in Charlotte for the 1988-89 season, have never been this good through 45 games. The 6-foot Paul, now in his third season, is the unquestioned leader, averaging 20.8 points, 10.7 assists and 2.6 steals.

Moreover, frontcourt players like West (19.6 point per game) and center Tyson Chandler (12.1 ppg) are flourishing in the up-tempo system Paul runs under the tutelage of head coach Byron Scott.

When the Hornets drafted Paul, it was primarily for the ability he showed at Wake Forest to help frontcourt players get good looks at the basket, general manager Jeff Bower said.

"He's got the ability as a guard to impact your front-line players dramatically with the plays that he makes that lead to many times dunks or 3-foot shots," Bower said.

Never mind his ability to dribble in traffic and create his own shots.

In a 123-92 victory over Seattle recently, Paul stirred up the crowd with a move on Kevin Durant. He stepped back with a high, slow, left-handed dribble, then crossed over to his right hand with a quick burst into the lane before sinking a short floater over other converging defenders.

"He's really clever and he really knows when to protect the ball, when to keep it shielded by his body, when to pull back, when to accelerate," Bower said.

This season is the Hornets' first in New Orleans full time since a two-year stint in Oklahoma City following Hurricane Katrina. In conjunction, the NBA is holding the All-Star game in New Orleans.

Paul and West were both selected as All-Star reserves by the Western Conference coaches, giving the game some local flavor.

"(Paul) had a very good first year, winning rookie of the year, had a better second year and is having a phenomenal third year," Scott said. "I look at his stats and I don't see a point guard that's doing what he's doing."

The Hornets' average attendance is around 12,000, near the bottom of the league. A new lease could keep the Hornets here through 2014 but also allows them to move if average attendance does not reach 14,735 by the end of next season.

Paul said empty seats do not leave him feeling under-appreciated. He's active in community service, seeing firsthand the many storm-battered, empty homes that have yet to be rebuilt. He understands that judging the fan base may require patience.

He also has seen that New Orleans is more of a football town. He lives in the same riverfront high-rise as Saints running back Reggie Bush. The two young stars share the same private chef, often dining together or shooting pool. Paul has attended Saints games, all sellouts.

In some ways, the Hornets are to New Orleans what the Penguins are to Pittsburgh, the "other" pro team in a city where football is king.

The Penguins were once NHL doormats, playing before small crowds. Lemieux transformed them into Stanley Cup champions and one of the hottest tickets in town.

Could Paul galvanize New Orleans fans in a similar way?

"I hope so," Paul said. "That would definitely be nice, but I think it's going to be our team more than anything. The fans, when they do come out, they get an opportunity to see not only a good team, but I think we're exciting to watch. We get up and down, we play fast, we have 3-point shots, the nice moves and the dunks. Once people continue to see it more and more and hear the buzz, that will help."