NEW ORLEANS — When Avery Johnson was in the midst of his career with the San Antonio Spurs in 1997, he gushed about one of the team’s new players during a phone interview.

Young small forward Monty Williams possessed great athletic ability and was very cerebral, combinations that made him an excellent defensive player. And, Williams had the maturity, confidence and humble spirit to have a long NBA career, Johnson felt.

On Thursday at Hornets practice, Williams was noticeably affected by the news that Johnson had been fired in his third season as coach of the New Jersey Nets, saying his take on it was probably different from most because Johnson is a good friend.

“He just got (Eastern Conference) Coach of the Month (for November); he gets fired,” said Williams, his face a picture of disbelief.

Like many in the NBA, the “weird business” of the league, as Williams calls it, gave him pause once more. Perhaps it resonated not just because he and Johnson have been influenced by the Spurs’ Gregg Popovich, but because of his own team’s 6-23 record, even though he signed a four-year extension before the season began.

Like Popovich and many others who weighed in on the firing, Williams wondered what happened to patience. Johnson suffered through two long seasons with little talent with the Nets.

This season, after adding shooting guard Joe Johnson and re-signing key players, the team had the best start in franchise history. Then center Brook Lopez, twin brother of the Hornets’ Robin, sprained a foot. Even when he came back, the team struggled.

“Soon as they put the pieces around him where they could be good, he didn’t get the time that he needed to see that program through,” Williams said.

Dwane Casey, coach of the Toronto Raptors, whom the Hornets played Friday night, agreed. He wondered what would have happened in a similar situation with another team if the coach had been fired.

“The Miami Heat, there were calls to fire coach (Eric) Spoelstra after they started the (2010-11) season with several losses (after adding LeBron James and Chris Bosh),” Casey said Friday. “The next season, they won the (NBA) championship.”

The day before, he told the Toronto media covering the team that Nets management had made a mistake in assessing the team’s talent.

“The expectations are here,” he said, raising his hand, “and the talent is here,” he said, lowering it. “They’re just not ready to win yet.”

Saying Johnson is one of the top coaches in the league, Casey said he’s certain Johnson will become a head coach again. Williams sounded even more confident.

“I know that that guy knows the game,” Williams said. “He’s a great coach. He’s demanding, and he wants to see guys get better. I know where his heart is.”

A new day

The Raptors were the first of three consecutive games against Eastern Conference foes, which will end with Tuesday night’s home game against Atlanta. The Hornets also will play three consecutive games in mid-January against Eastern teams at New Orleans Arena.

There was a time when that took on an adjustment. For the most part, Western Conference teams employed a more uptempo, running style, and Eastern teams were decidedly more half court and physical.

Williams said that’s not entirely the case any more.

“It depends on which teams you’re looking at,” he said. “Miami looks more like a Western Conference team. The Lakers look like an Eastern Conference team with their (big players) and the way they play inside out.

“New York used to be a plodding inside-out team. Now, they shoot more threes than anybody. I don’t think it’s a pattern any more.”

Big returns

Washington Wizards point guard John Wall has said he will return this coming month.

Wall, the NBA’s 2010 overall No. 1 pick, has been out indefinitely since injuring his knee this summer. He has a patella injury similar to that experienced by Hornets guard Eric Gordon.

“My timetable is some time in January,” Wall said this past week. “The way I’m feeling with no pain, working out and doing it three (days in a row), and there’s been no pain, I’m feeling good.

“I feel like I’m taking the right steps, and I haven’t had any pain the last couple of workouts.”

Knicks power forward 2 is expected to return New Year’s Day against Portland. There was much speculation Stoudemire could disrupt the team’s chemistry, particularly with Carmelo Anthony flourishing in his move from small forward to power forward.

Stoudemire was a starter before having surgery during training camp to remove tissue in his left knee. He said this past week that his return won’t cause any problems because he’s spoken with coach Mike Woodson and is on board with coming off the bench.

Point guard Raymond Felton will miss four to six weeks with a broken pinky, but the Knicks do have depth at the position with veteran Jason Kidd and Pablo Prigioni. Helping offset Kidd’s move from shooting guard will be the return soon of Iman Shumpert, whose left ACL was torn during the team’s Game 1 playoff game against Miami last season.

Autograph signings

Hornets players Anthony Davis, Greivis Vasquez and Lance Thomas will be on the southeast side of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome’s Plaza Level on Sunday signing autographs from 10:30-11:30 a.m. before the New Orleans Saints home game against the Carolina Panthers.

The Hornets Sport Court will also be set up on Sunday for fans before the game.