Before we begin, a link: The nice young lads over at Hoops Addict emailed me and asked very nicely to link to an interview they did with Cavs assistant coach Michael Malone. It’s worth a listen, so check it out, and remember that the email is firstname.lastname@example.org if there’s ever anything any of you guys would like me to take a look at.
The entire LeBron era, I’ve dreamed about how scary this team would be offensively with one of two players next to LeBron. A true drive-and-kick point guard could allow LeBron to work a lot more on the weak side and absolutely destroy defenses that aren’t set up to stop him, like he did in international play. The other kind of player that could be absolutely destructive with LeBron is a true pick-and-roll monster like an Amare Stoudemire, Pau Gasol, or David West-LeBron is almost literally unstoppable running the screen-roll if the strong side doesn’t load up, so that would allow someone with an amazing weak-side game to run wild.
In fact, it’s a little amazing that the Cavs have had as much screen-roll success as they have with the “roll” men they’ve had so far-Andy V can’t shoot and doesn’t really like to dunk, Zydrunas and Joe settle(d) for an 18-footer 80% of the time, and Drew Gooden was wont to go on prolonged slumps if one of his spirit animals was in emotional distress. And there was Ben Wallace.
But for a few extremely brief, shining moments last season, it looked like JJ Hickson just might have the talent to be that monster “roll guy” somewhere down the line. I’m prone to hyperbole in these player profiles, but this is something I said during the season and honestly still believe-in terms of pure athleticism and skill, JJ Hickson is the most offensively talented big man LeBron has ever played with.
Hickson was a relative unknown coming into the draft and was considered by many to be a reach at 21, but quickly showed that he had a ton of potential with some great summer league performances and some nice flashes in limited rotation minutes around January and February. He was even seen as a guy who could land a huge trade-deadline player for the Cavs, but the Cavaliers refused to include him in a package for any player other than Amare Stoudemire himself, and he wasn’t enough of a prize to fetch Stoudemire from Phoenix.
After all that hulabaloo, Hickson only had 1 more 10-point game after the trade deadline, and the arrival of Joe Smith unofficially signaled his exit from the rotation. Late in the year, he suffered a back injury which caused him to miss the playoffs and this year’s summer league.
Hickson’s main gifts are that he has soft hands and unbelievable springs-according to Windhorst, JJ Hickson can get up even higher than LeBron when reach gets factored in. But more impressive than JJ’s sheer amplitude is how quickly he gets off the floor-he doesn’t need to bring it down, step, or bend his knees, he just catches and goes straight up. Those skills alone make him dangerous playing with LeBron James-if he can find weak-side seams and get the catches, he can dunk all day where Varejao would flip up a reverse lay-up, Zydrunas would slooooowly bring the ball down and set it in, Joe Smith would up-and-under before trying a chippie hook, Drew Gooden would do Lord Knows What, and Ben Wallace would do something that was not supposed to happen.
And it’s not just JJ’s athleticism-while filling in for Anderson Varejao and/or Z over the course of the year, JJ would seemingly flash a new trick every game, be it a clean-looking 18-foot jumper, a new up-and-under fake for a dunk, a jab-step move out of the Malone post, or a pretty hook shot to score with his back to the basket. Simply put, JJ has all the tools.
Problem is, so do a lot of folks on the ends of benches. For all of Hickson’s talents, he still has a lot of massive holes in his game at this stage of his career. And remember, his career-high is currently 14 points. He has a nice stroke on his shot, but only made 30% of his jumpers last season. He loved to take the ball right at the rim, and 60% of his shots came from “inside,” with a third of those being dunks, but his forays lacked nuance-a full quarter of his layup attempts were blocked. He got to the line a fair amount, but only shot his free throws at a 68% clip when he got there. His post game is often rushed and ugly, and his footwork can get careless around the basket. He’s not a passer.
But what keeps Hickson off the court more than anything else is his Gooden-like tendency to completely blow defensive rotations. In Mike Brown’s defensive system, which is based on sound show-and-recover defense from bigs out on the perimeter, defensive mental lapses are simply not forgiveable. Hickson has defensive talent; he’s probably the most talented shot-blocker on the team outside of LeBron, and has extremely light feet for a guy his size. But he needs to know where he is more often than he currently does if he wants to be in the rotation when the important games roll around.
Hickson’s developmental prospects are a bit of a Catch-22. The Cavs need Hickson to be a role player if he’s going to be useful, giving more effort on defense and focusing on playing a weak-side catch-and-dunk game offensively to take pressure off of LeBron, Shaq, or Mo on the strong-side. But he’s not ready to be part of the main units yet. And as a “big fish” in garbage-time or the D-League, Hickson tended to focus on his strong-side offensive game, posting up as the primary offensive option a lot, not playing with anyone who could draw strong-side attention, and ignoring his defensive responsibilities.
A team builds its strategy around the strengths of its star players-what makes a role player valuable is their lack of weaknesses. JJ Hickson is worlds more talented than your average role player, but he also has too many weaknesses to be effective as a solid 25-minute complimentary player at this stage of his career.
Given the weak finish to his season and his lingering back injury, the front office seems cautiously optimistic about Hickson. After Ben Wallace and Joe Smith were allowed to walk, Hickson is officially the backup power forward. But the Cavs have hedged by signing Leon Powe and giving Mike Brown more unconventional lineup options should Hickson fail to improve-if LeBron slides over to the 4, Moon, Parker, Ilgauskas, and even Jackson, Green, and Kurz could get minutes from Hickson.
If the Cavs weren’t so close to a championship, Hickson would be a fabulous player to watch develop, hopefully sort out the kinks in his game, and live up to his all-star potential somewhere down the line. But as it stands now, the Cavaliers have no time for upside. If Hickson wants to make an impact in a Cleveland uniform, he has to get busy livin’ or get busy sittin’ right from the beginning this season.