By JUSTIN EINHORN
(AP) -- With the NBA seemingly thin on talent at the center position, Phoenix's Robin Lopez and Philadelphia's Spencer Hawes appeared to be two more big busts after disappointing 2010-11 seasons.
Each 7-footer showed in this week's opener he still could end up being a major contributor, though only one can help his team get its first victory as the Suns host the 76ers on Wednesday night.
The expectations for Lopez grew after he became a starter midway through 2009-10 - his second NBA season - and averaged 11.3 points and 6.2 rebounds in 31 starts. He failed to build upon that promise last season, averaging 6.4 points and 3.2 boards in 67 games, and eventually lost his starting job.
Some nagging injuries could have been partly to blame for that drop-off, and the team noticed his improved play during training camp.
Lopez scored a game-high 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in 27 minutes off the bench in a season-opening 85-84 home loss to New Orleans on Monday.
"He's looked really active and aggressive and he was big for us tonight," two-time MVP Steve Nash said. "He had a really nice game. He had a struggle last year physically and mentally and to come back strong says a lot about him."
Nash had 14 points and 12 assists to kick off his 16th season but went scoreless in the fourth quarter. The final play was designed for Nash to get the ball, but rookie Markieff Morris threw it out of bounds.
Phoenix, though, was pleased with its defensive effort, particularly after finishing second-to-last in the league last season in points allowed at 105.9 per game.
"You can see the work that we've been putting in at practice," Lopez said. "If we can make that big of a jump from preseason to this game, I think it's a tough loss but if we keep playing with that intensity I think we'll be OK."
Like the Suns, the 76ers weren't too bothered by a narrow loss in their opener, 107-103 in Portland on Monday.
Philadelphia cut a 15-point deficit to two with 17 seconds left after Lou Williams scored 10 straight 76ers points - he finished with 25 - but Andre Iguodala missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer.
"If we play with that kind of effort and competitive nature over the course of the year, we're going to be fine," Hawes said. "The stuff that hurt us tonight is correctable. And I think we'll get it quickly the more we're around each other."
Hawes nearly had a triple-double, finishing with 10 points and 14 rebounds while tying a career high with nine assists.
The 10th overall pick in 2007, Hawes is coming off a subpar first season with Philadelphia after being acquired from Sacramento in a three-team deal. Despite starting 81 games, his averages of 7.2 points and 5.7 boards were easily his worst since his rookie season.
"He was incredibly committed in the offseason," second-year coach Doug Collins said. "This is a kid who has great confidence in himself. Spencer came in great shape. He thrives in the way we play. If Spencer stays healthy and sound, he's going to have a great, great year."
While the 76ers look to prevent another bad beginning - they lost four straight and 13 of 16 to open last season but made the playoffs - Phoenix hopes to avoid its first 0-2 start since opening 0-13 in 1996-97.
Philadelphia swept both meetings last season after losing nine of 12 to the Suns.
Updated December 27, 2011