Front and Center

RSS
At one point during the Cavaliers’ Friday night loss to Golden State, the average age of Cleveland’s five on the floor was 22.2 years of age.

One of the veterans directing traffic during that stretch was veteran, J.J. Hickson.

If readers have a hard time thinking of J.J. as a “veteran,” they’re not alone. Even Hickson – who actually is 22.2 years old – has a hard time seeing himself as one of the senior statesman.

Now, with the news of Anderson Varejao missing the rest of the regular season, Hickson will have to fill another role that he may or may not be prepared for – starting center.

“I know I’m undersized, but I think it’s good for me because I take on that challenge,” said Hickson.

Hickson has played the 5 before – and played it well, starting Cleveland’s last 22 games at center last year. In that stretch, the Atlanta native averaged 11.4 ppg and the Wine and Gold went 15-7. (Cleveland was 55-18 in the starting lineup, overall, and 25-5 when he notched double-figures.)

J.J.’s first full-time stint at center this year came on Sunday night in Phoenix. And the reviews were stellar.

In 35 minutes of work against Robin Lopez and Marcin Gortat, all Hickson did was go for a career-high 17 rebounds – nine off the offensive glass – and notch 23 points on 8-for-23 shooting.

But it hasn’t been easy for Hickson to get to this point. To say it’s been an up-and-down season for the former N.C. State star would be an understatement.

He began the year by dropping 21 on the Celtics in an opening night win. Two games later, he had Quicken Loans Arena chanting “MVP!” as he went off for 31 points against the Hawks. J.J. would score in double-figures for the next five games, but he would fail to do so in 10 of the next 11 – getting a DNP-CD along the way.

After a loss to the Sixers, J.J. was moved to the bench and it’s no secret that he and Coach Scott were, at times, not seeing eye-to-eye.

“I felt like my game was slipping away from me,” Hickson admitted before Sunday’s matchup in Phoenix. “The attitude I had, I’m big on energy (and) I felt like I was going in with a whole bunch of negative energy. When I’m that way, I don’t play good.

“I had to change myself and put my teammates first to get the job done.”

Hickson picked up another disciplinary DNP just last Wednesday, in Cleveland’s last home game before leaving for their current five-game West Coast swing. Reinserted into the rotation, Hickson responded immediately, notching 17 points and nine boards in the trip’s opener in Oakland.

Coach Scott’s message obviously hit home.

“He’s the head coach,” said Hickson. “He makes the calls, and from here on out, I’m willing to do whatever he says. There’s been a change in my behavior, in my attitude toward the coaching staff and the team, and I think it shows on the court.”

That change was definitely apparent on Sunday night. Hickson, in a familiar role at center, was a beast on the low block. He was relentless on the boards and didn’t settle for the jumper. As he was in spurts during last year’s series against Boston, J.J. was almost unstoppable.

Now, with Anderson Varejao gone for the season, Hickson will have every opportunity to show his stuff and get in Byron Scott’s good graces – re-establishing himself as one of the league’s up-and-coming young players.

“It’s going to be more playing time for me and other bigs,” observed Hickson. “It’s an opportunity for a lot more people to get minutes and get better.”


Joe Gabriele is the official beat writer for the Cleveland Cavaliers on Cavs.com. You can follow Joe and send him your questions on Twitter at @CavsJoeG.