The Rapid Rise of J.J. Hickson

It’s tournament time across the country – conferences this weekend; the Big Dance next weekend.

Three Cavaliers – Jawad Williams, Danny Green and Darnell Jackson – have all won NCAA Championships. If second-year forward J.J. Hickson hadn’t declared after his freshman season, he might be vying for one of his own.

When asked if he ever thinks about how he’d be dominating the competition as the tourneys tip off, the 21-year-old Hickson breaks into a wide smile before tempering his answer.

“No, I’d be thinking about those double- and triple-teams.”

Hickson was already a handful by the time he got to North Carolina State – going 12-for-12 in his first collegiate game and proceeding to shoot .591 as a freshman, best in the ACC. The Atlanta native went on to average 14.8 points and 8.5 rebounds in his sole season in Raleigh.

On Draft night, Hickson leapfrogged bigger names like Kosta Koufus, Mario Chalmers and Chris Douglas-Roberts. And after sporadic play in his rookie season in Cleveland, J.J. has been one of the season’s biggest surprises. He cracked the starting lineup seven games into the season and – 55 starts later – has established himself as one of the most coveted young bigs in the NBA.

Hickson was so coveted, in fact, that it looked like any Deadline deal the Cavaliers would make to improve the roster would include the dunking youngster.

Seasoned veterans are accustomed to being the subject of trade rumors. Kids who just reached drinking age tend to take it a little differently.

“Yeah, it bothered me – but only to a certain extent because at the end of the day, I understand that it’s a business,” said Hickson. “It affected me at the time because we had just won 13 in a row, had the best record in the league, and my name was on the trading block. But as I said, I didn’t let it affect me on the floor. The main thing was to stay focused. All I could do is play basketball, and that’s what I did.”

The rumor mill was as far as Hickson’s name would go, as Danny Ferry was able to pry Antawn Jamison away from Washington without having to include J.J.

Hickson’s string of starts was snapped with a DNP on February 23 against New Orleans, but after Shaquille O’Neal was forced to have surgery on his left thumb, J.J. found himself right back in the starting lineup – this time in the pivot. In his first two games, he went 15-for-21 from the floor, averaging 11 rebounds per contest.

Mike Brown might still want more out of Hickson on the defensive end, but the young gun is already a gifted offensive player.

“I’m happy with my role in the offense, because when I score it’s in the flow of the team,” said Hickson, adding, “I don’t shoot a lot of jumpers because that’s not what my team needs from me right now. We have Antawn and earlier this season we had a guy like Z. I think the way I score, it allows the game to flow better because of all the shooters we have on the floor.”

Averaging just 7.7 ppg this year, Hickson isn’t asked to carry the scoring load for Cleveland – a team loaded with scorers, including the league’s best. But when Hickson does succeed, so do the Cavaliers. When J.J. exceeds his scoring average, the Cavaliers are 27-1.

There’s not much finesse to J.J.’s game. He’s a thunderous dunker on a team that already has LeBron and the Diesel. And slowly, he’s beginning to flash the 12- to 15-foot jumper that will make him even more dangerous as it develops.

Hickson doesn’t want to be known exclusively as a dunker, and he looks forward to honing his skills offensively.

“I want to grow, I don’t want this to be the limit of my game,” asserted Hickson. “Even though I’m playing well right now, as I get older I expect my game to grow more and more. And I think my teammates will look for me to score as I continue to get better.”

The sophomore sensation is the youngest player on the team, but he’s made some big strides from his freshman campaign in Cleveland. And his rapid rise will be critical when the Cavaliers tip off the NBA’s second season in just over a month.

“I think I’ve matured a lot,” concluded Hickson. “Not just on the court but off the court – even in terms of simple things, like getting to the gym early and prioritizing things. And I think it’s showing in my game.”