Celebrity Apprentice

There are worse jobs for a 21-year-old kid than to keep Shaquille O’Neal’s starting job warm while he’s on leave. And being taken under LeBron James’ wing while you’re doing so can’t hurt either.

Just old enough to grow the morsels of facial hair that he sported in the second half of the season, J.J. Hickson defied the dreaded “sophomore slump” – finishing the regular season with 73 starts on the NBA’s winningest team.

After getting those 73 starts at both power forward and center – in which the Cavaliers went 55-18 – Hickson has been reduced to a reserve role through two games of the postseason, playing less than a combined minute.

But, as watchers of the Wine and Gold can attest, a defining moment can come at any time. Jamario Moon parlayed a good final week into an unforgettable night in Game 2 at The Q. Back in 2006 – LeBron’s first foray into the playoffs – Damon Jones came off the bench cold and hit one of the biggest playoff shots in franchise history.

“We’re going to need him through the course of the postseason,” said the reigning MVP. “He may not know that. When you’re a young guy and you play a lot – then you don’t play – it can definitely mess with your confidence. But I believe at some point – if it’s not this series (and I still believe he can help us in this one) – he will in series to come, if we continue to move on.”

No one knew if J.J. would be productive at all in his sophomore season. Late last year, the high-flying Atlanta native was shut down with a bad back. And what he could contribute coming into this campaign was anybody’s guess.

But this season, Hickson matriculated under a pair of future Hall of Famers, James and O’Neal. And for any young grasshopper, it doesn’t get any more “Master Po” than that.

In terms of helpful veterans, Hickson says they spent the year “giving me advice on different moves and different defensive schemes. And not just on the court, but off the court – how to deal with certain decisions and how to deal with certain situations. They’ve been really helpful for me.”

In fact, learning under O’Neal should pay off in two ways. The Diesel never fails to inform reporters that he’s always gotten the power forward across from him a new contract.

During the regular season, J.J. had more ups than downs – averaging 8.5 points and 4.9 boards in just under 21 minutes per contest. Hickson shot an impressive .554 from the floor and notched four double-doubles.

With a tightened-up playoff rotation, the days of Hickson getting 21 minutes might have to wait until his third regular season. But he’s accepted the decision and keeps himself prepared for the call.

“I’m just going about the game the same way,” insists the soft-spoken sophomore from Atlanta. “My mindset is the same as if I’m starting and my routine hasn’t changed at all.”

J.J.’s development wasn’t a luxury for the Cavaliers. With Shaquille’s injuries and Zydrunas Ilgauskas’ being dealt after the All-Star break, Hickson has been an essential big for Mike Brown. And as J.J. goes, so go the Cavaliers. Cleveland is 19-3 when he simply breaks double-digits, 6-2 when he scores 20 or more.

Hickson was inserted in the starting lineup seven games into the 2009-10 season, and minus a DNP on Feb. 23 against New Orleans, has been one of Cleveland’s most consistent performers. In a three-game stretch in November, he dropped 18 on Miami, 20 on Utah and 21 more against the Warriors.

In the Cavaliers last meaningful regular season game, Hickson grabbed a career-high 16 boards to help Cleveland secure the Eastern Conference’s top mark.

J.J. hasn’t made his mark on the Playoffs yet. But history has taught us that at any moment, any player can change the course of his team’s postseason fate. Hickson knows his chance will come.

“We don’t have any guys on this team that care about themselves above the team,” said LeBron, referring to J.J.’s patience. “That’s not our team and that’s never been our team. But we have guys who feel that they can be on the court. Every guy on this team feels like they can be on the court and help this team.”

“I understand that we have goals to accomplish and I want whatever the team wants,” added Hickson. “Whatever I have to do to help my team win I’m going to do.”