When the Portland Trail Blazers picked up forward J.J. Hickson off waivers from the Sacramento Kings, it wasn’t entirely known what kind of player they were getting. He wasn’t happy with the Kings, but even with a fresh start would his style of play suit the Blazers? The answer to that question has been yes.
The 23-year-old 6’9″ former first-round pick out of NC State by the Cleveland Cavaliers has been a consistent force in what has otherwise been a trying season for Portland. He was once very highly touted by the Cavaliers and was constantly mentioned as the centerpiece of trade talks. There is a reason why, and the Blazers have found that out. Coming off the bench, he has given the team everything they could have asked for and more, playing with youthful energy and enthusiasm as well as a versatile offensive game. He has been surprisingly explosive at times, most notably throwing down eye-popping dunks, while also hustling to make plays on defense. As a result of his efforts, he is averaging 13 points and six rebounds in 27 minutes per game. He is a unrestricted free-agent following the season, and he is showing Portland why they should do all they can to bring him back.
Portland’s chance at making the playoffs is dwindling. Yet, in large part due to his efforts, the team is still fighting. As indicated by their play since his arrival, they have no intention of folding. A 29-point game against the Los Angeles Clippers put him on the map. That performance, coming in a nail-biting one-point loss, was highlighted by a Dunk of the Year candidate: the posterization of DeAndre Jordan. The slam, which came in the second quarter, had point guard Jonny Flynn giddy like a schoolboy on the right wing, hopping up and down. It is moments like this that keep Portland going. Even though the season hasn’t gone as planned doesn’t mean they can stop playing hard. Hickson’s ferocity, aggressiveness, and overall impact is still giving his all, and this will to play hard is contagious.
Since his arrival, Portland has gone 6-6, while competing until the end in three of their losses. They have greatly underachieved this season and currently sit 4 1/2 games back of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with a record of 27-31. And they may lose their star, power forward LaMarcus Aldridge, for the remainder of the season, as he is traveling to Colorado to get his ailing hip examined. Losing him would greatly diminish their chances of making the playoffs, but if anything good could come from shutting Aldridge down for the remainder of the season it would be increased playing time for Hickson.
The team didn’t get the tanking memo sent out by many fans. Hickson’s frustration after losses exemplifies the desire they still have to win.
“Late down the stretch – not just this game but all the close games we’ve lost – I think the last four minutes of our close games is where we need to really buckle down and play great team defense and pay attention to detail as a team,” he told Sarah Hecht of Trailblazers.com. “We’ve got to execute on offense. We’ve got to know what plays we’re going to, who we’re going to. We just have to execute down the stretch on the offensive and defense end.
“It’s not one person or one position. It’s us as a whole. Coach Kaleb [Canales], he’s doing a great job of giving us defensive schemes to go into the game with and execute, but like I said, down the stretch, he’s not on the court with us. So we have to pay attention to detail and lock in and get stops and execute on the offensive end.”
Many players on Portland’s roster deserve to be part of the long-term plan. In just three weeks time, Hickson has entered this group, not only impressing with his play but also his driven mentality. He is young, but he is mature and has the fight in him to work tirelessly on both ends of the court. He is playing for what he hopes to be a lucrative contract this offseason, but it is also clear he is playing for this team–a team he should be with for a long time.