J.J. Hickson Could Be Free Agent Prize
The Portland Trail Blazers have claimed J.J. Hickson off waivers and re-signed him to a one-year, $4 million deal in the last nine months, but if they hope to get his signature for a third time this summer, it’s going to be considerably more expensive.
Hickson is an early candidate for Comeback Player of the Year after getting released by the Sacramento Kings last March. Since then he’s gone from an athletic, but undisciplined former prospect to a remarkably efficient offensive weapon. And since he’s still just 24, he’ll undoubtedly have offers over the summer.
“I don’t know,” he told HOOPSWORLD about his future with the Blazers. “All I can do is control what I can control and that’s play the game of basketball and the rest will work itself out.”
And Hickson, who still has his Bird rights, has been doing just that.
He’s currently boasting career highs in shooting percentage (55.7%), rebounding rate (22.2) and Player Efficiency Rating (21.18, which is 24th in the NBA). And because Hickson is logging nearly 30 minutes a game, he’s averaging a double-double (12.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg).
“Consistency definitely was an emphasis, something that I have struggled with my whole career, and I think all the hard work I put in is finally paying off and me being consistent,” Hickson said.
It goes without saying that Hickson has matured a bit on and off the court. Not only is he training diligently in the offseason, but Hickson has begun to play within himself during the regular season.
In 35 games with the Kings last year, Hickson took 1.7 shots per game at the rim, making only 50.8 percent of those attempts. Now he’s shooting 5.5 times per game at the rim, to go with a 63.3 percent clip.
Hickson still struggles with his jump shot (he’s making just 34.8 percent of his attempts between three and nine feet this season) but he’s only shooting from that distance an average of once per game.
“[I’m] Just making shots, just making good decisions with the basketball,” he said. “Not rushing anything, being consistent.”
Hickson may have been at his best in the first half of Tuesday’s 105-100 win over the Knicks in New York as he hit nine shots in the paint and threw down a memorable dunk on Amar’e Stoudemire.
But unlike previous seasons, when Hickson was capable of missing significantly more shots than he made, his performances have been mostly positive. Hickson averaged 11.3 points per game on 52.8 percent field goal shooting in November and followed that with marks of 13.8 ppg and 58.9 percent in December.
And Hickson’s rebounding has remained consistent as well. He averaged double figures in November and December, and since Dec. 5, he’s had at least eight boards in every game.
But Hickson’s entire season hasn’t been perfect. As a 6-9 center, he’s often at a size disadvantage, which had made things difficult on the defensive end.
The Blazers are yielding 37.6 ppg in the paint (16th in the NBA) and rank just 22nd in the league in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions).
“It has its ups and downs, but I have been doing a good job of accepting my role on this team and just doing what’s required of a center,” said Hickson, adding that he’s asked to, “Rebound, defend, be a presence in the paint when I can and just make basketball plays when I’m open.”
Hickson is probably a more natural power forward, but he doesn’t really have a choice at the moment. Rookie Meyers Leonard is too young — and injured — to make an impact at center, and power forward LaMarcus Aldridge is currently the franchise’s cornerstone, so it’s not like he’s going to shift positions.
And given that the team used a lottery pick on Leonard, it’s obvious that Portland doesn’t see Hickson as its long-term answer at center.
To his credit, Hickson hasn’t taken that personally. He’s been in much tougher situations than this, and after being released by a dysfunctional Kings organization, he’s just happy to be getting a chance to prove himself again.
“Definitely, that situation definitely got to me mentally,” Hickson said. “I’m a Trailblazer now and I’m happy I’m here.”