Not since his time with the Cleveland Cavaliers has J.J. Hickson been as important to a team as he is now with the Portland Trailblazers. Back then, Hickson ran with reigning NBA most valuable player, LeBron James in what seems like an age ago. In fact, Hickson only left Cleveland in the summer of 2011, first for a short stint in Israel with Bnei HaSharon during the NBA lockout. When the doors to the League reopened, Hickson found himself with the Sacramento Kings following a pre-lockout trade made by the Cavs that June. Having been waived by the Kings in March of this year and claimed by the Blazers, with whom he agreed a one year deal, Hickson has bounced around an awful lot lately for a guy who was considered too valuable by the Cavaliers to package in a proposed deal for Amar’e Stoudemire during the 2009-10 season. But it seems, entering into his first season on a non-rookie contract, Hickson has found a niche on this young Portland team as one of the more experienced players on the roster. He’s starting, hustling as he always has, and he’s averaging a double-double so far this season for his trouble.
For a guy who was probably considered by most as the biggest liability in the Blazers starting lineup, Hickson has been a revelation so far. At 6’9″ yes, he is a little undersized, but his style of play hasn’t changed and he still has the qualities that made him so valuable in Cleveland when they were a contender. His motor is unquestionable and he should always be in the discussion for “highest energy player” in the NBA. He plays with passion and speed and those qualities help makeup for what he loses in the height department. He’s rebounding at a career-high rate with 11.3 per game. However, due to a seemingly expanded role in the offense, Hickson is struggling somewhat with both field goal percentage and turnovers, where he’s operating well below his career averages. I don’t really believe in putting too much stock in those types of statistics this early in the season, but Hickson does have to get a bit more efficient in those areas as the season wears on. The same could be said for his running mate in the front court, LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having similar efficiency problems early on. A lot of this could be easily attributed to working within new head coach Terry Stotts’ system and that the efficiency troubles may even out as the season continues and the players get more accustomed to it all.
Regardless, Hickson is having his best season to date because he is on a team that has the perfect role for him. He starts but doesn’t play too many minutes (28 MPG). He is involved in the offense, but not too much, and his biggest contributions are on easy buckets and offensive boards (5.3 offensive rebounds per game, or nearly half his rebounding total). He has 2 great wing defenders in front of him that make protecting the rim that much easier, and a point guard who can run the pick and roll effectively. Add in the fact that Aldridge can draw double teams and is playing improved defense and it becomes clear that Hickson slots in perfectly on this team. At only 24, he’s still young entering into this, his 5th season in the league. But it has become clear that Hickson can be a valuable role player on a team built around a star guy. When Hickson was asked to take on that “star” role on the post-LeBron Cavs, he came up short. That’s not his fault, he’s just not that type of player. In Sacramento, he became a forgotten man of sorts, but he is experiencing something of a renaissance in Portland and that can be attributed to the fact that he is just being asked to play within himself.
When you watch the Blazers play, though, it’s easy to see what Hickson’s biggest contribution to the team is; Energy, heart, hustle, passion, whatever you want to call it, Hickson brings it to this team. His energy, along with the Twin Terrors on the wing; Wes Matthews and Nicolas Batum, gives Portland a real edge on defense. Couple that with the second chances created by his excellent offensive rebounding and that’s going to keep them in a lot of games. He might not be the most talented or athletic player on the floor, but every team could use a J.J. Hickson deployed in the right way. Coach Stotts saw that in the preseason, handing Hickson the starting spot over rookies Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland. “He’s earned it,” Stotts said. “He’s played well.” It’s a simple description of the situation, but “earning it” couldn’t be more apt for a guy who prides himself on playing hard and playing tough. If he keeps it up, by the end of this season, Hickson will have earned himself a shiny new contract as well.