Another game, another big line for J.J. Hickson. The Blazers—making a serious habit of testing their crunch time luck this season—may have come up short in overtime last night in Denver, but it was not for want of another strong showing from their starting “center”. In 34 minutes, J.J. logged 19 points and 13 rebounds on 7/8 field goals. Outrun for much of the night by the fleet-footed Kenneth Faried, Hickson nonetheless managed the sort of line that may have shocked at the beginning of this year but has become increasingly commonplace.
I have to admit that I—like many others, I suspect—had more or less written Hickson off before this season. Yes, he had a brief performance bump last year in the 19 games he played for the Blazers, but I was comfortable attributing that to a brief jolt brought on by his release from Sacramento and the bizarre state of flux the Blazers’ roster was in when he arrived. And yet, by most measures, he’s been even better this year.
Lately, his improved play has landed him in the news cycle. An ESPN article by Justin Kubatko (Insider) detailed Hickson’s chances of being named the league’s Most Improved Player, while Blazers observers have been trying to parse out whether his play has made him a viable trade asset. Though, as Marc Stein pointed out, Hickson’s Bird Rights and trade veto clause complicate any potential moves, it’s clear that he has played his way back into value, either as part of a surprising fringe playoff team or a deal that helps Portland stockpile more assets.
How did this happen? How did a player who seemed so cooked become a valuable and reliable starter?
Let me start by saying that, in discussing Hickson’s increased value, I am not glossing his weaknesses. The Blazers rank in the bottom half of the league in nearly every meaningful defensive stat, and remain the only team among the West’s top 8 with a negative point margin. While there are other factors on the roster, a large reason the Blazers are so flammable is the heavy minutes they’re playing Hickson alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. Hickson is strong and a willing banger, but his sluggish feet, relative lack of size for a “center” and proclivity toward blowing rotations make him a defensive liability.
Looked at a certain way, however, those deficiencies make what Hickson is doing all the more impressive. The Blazers’ starters are playing heavy minutes—Hickson, in fact, is the only one averaging less than 35—and the work J.J. is doing provides a bit of triage to keep the unit’s strengths competitive in the face of its weaknesses. In fact, Hickson is posting the highest individual offensive rating among regular Blazer players, so he’s augmenting the team strengths even more than it initially appears.
So, again I ask: How? One of the things fans are saying about Hickson is that he has finally come to terms with his inner dog, that his release from Sacramento made him understand that he needs to rely on the game’s dirty work to keep a rotation spot. Though I’m hesitant to ascribe that sort of motivation, the numbers do bear out that Hickson is currently subsisting more on yeoman’s buckets than he has before.
So far this year, Hickson is posting a .580 true shooting percentage, his best figure since playing 20 minutes and taking 6 shots a game his second year. Playing heavier minutes, Hickson’s shooting declined in each of the next two seasons, bottoming out last year at a dismal TS% of .416 during his partial season in Sacramento.
Much of that decline can be attributed to Hickson’s shot selection. In 2010-2011, Hickson took just 45% of his shots at the rim. In 2011-2012, that figure fell to 43%. So despite his strong conversion rate around the bucket—he actually shot a higher percentage at the rim last year than he has so far this year—his overall shooting was much worse. In 2010-11, in fact, he was a dismal .325 from 10-15 feet and .316 from 16-23. Pretty putrid, especially for the portion of his attempts those shots represented.
This year, J.J. is taking about 62% of his shots directly near the rim. That’s all well and good, but that change has improved his other shooting zones as well: so far, he’s hitting at .487 from 10-15 feet and a gaudy .600 from 16-23 feet in a limited number of attempts. He hasn’t improved much as a shooter, but he has become much more discerning. It seems that only the best looks can prompt him to let it fly from the mid-range, and that’s turned him into an extremely efficient offensive player.
While his shooting has improved, Hickson’s rebounding has skyrocketed. His 21.6 total rebound percentage blows away his previous career high, and he’s racked up a couple lengthy double-double streaks. He has perfected a sly push-off that he uses to wreak havoc on the boards (seriously, once you see it, you can’t unsee it), and he’s often the only Blazer really contesting the glass. That he grabs as high a percentage of misses as he does is almost found money for Portland, and allows them to keep a wide-open floor like Terry Stotts prefers.
I’m not writing this to give Hickson the overblown fanboy treatment. He’s a flawed player, slow-footed and prone to lapses in defensive rotations and off-ball movement on offense. Some of his production is undeniably the product of huge team-wide flaws. But because he is such a flawed player finding success, he provides a good deal of insight into the new Blazers era. On the court, he is a testament to the ingenuity that has propelled this surprising season, and the decisions the Blazers make about his future role with the team will be a major indicator of their intentions going forward. Tomorrow, I’ll elaborate a bit more on how this is so.