TUALATIN, Ore. — J.J. Hickson stayed late on the Trail Blazers’ practice court Saturday morning, developing the game that has earned him rave reviews recently.
Hickson borrowed the first assistant coach he could find and for about 15 minutes, popped away from screens and launched jump shots fed to him by David Vanterpool. No other teammate remained on the floor — Hickson worked in peace — so maybe, this mid-range game can produce yet another surprise J.J. moment.
“The running hook in the lane,” coach Terry Stotts said after Hickson channeled his inner Kareem Abdul-Jabbar late in a 98-90 win over San Antonio on Thursday night. “I hadn’t seen that one yet. That was a big play.”
Kind words from his coach, for sure, but nothing quite beats grandma’s approval.
Earlier in the week against Toronto, when Hickson was flawless from the floor (7 for 7) and robust under the rim (11 rebounds), his agent walked out of the Rose Garden arena and immediately called Marie Myers to brag about her grandson.
“It’s clear that he’s turned the corner as far as his maturation process,” agent Andy Miller said. “(Myers) was very excited. She was elated to (hear) from a different person’s perspective.”
As the buzz builds around rookie Damian Lillard and the drama continues over Wesley Matthews’ hip, Hickson continues to lead the team in double-doubles and disregards. The tambourine player in this rock band. The guy often overlooked for the sexier storylines about the bigger stars.
Still, people have noticed. His coach, his agent, his proud grandmother. And on the very day Hickson became officially eligible to be dealt in a trade — just like the other NBA free agents who signed contracts this past summer — his general manager offered this praise.
“Hey, anybody who gets a double-double every night, fits into (our) core,” Blazers GM Neil Olshey said. “I think J.J. has been terrific. We’ve asked him to play out of position. Nobody’s really noticed it, but it’s not just that he’s getting a double-double almost every night, he’s doing it against 5-men (centers).”
Though Hickson isn’t even the tallest player in the Blazers’ starting lineup, he walks to the tip-circle and faces bigger opponents almost every night. This season, Hickson has matched up against the likes of Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard and Kendrick Perkins as well as rebounding machines such as Joakim Noah and Omer Asik. Sunday night with the New Orleans Hornets in town, Hickson will face lanky 6-foot-11 rookie Anthony Davis.
And yet, against this competition, the 6-9 Hickson has still collected 12 double-doubles.
“I take pride in the time that I’m on the floor, and I’m making the best of my opportunities,” Hickson said. “Coach trusts me to start, and from the time that I’m out there I’m going to play hard and do whatever I can to stay on the floor.”
Hickson’s latest — a 12-point, 12-rebound effort against the Spurs — helped the Blazers secure a win on national television.
Besides Hickson’s aforementioned running hook with 2:36 remaining in the game, he later grabbed an offensive rebound between two Spurs players and saved the loose ball to LaMarcus Aldridge as the Blazers protected a three-point advantage.
“J.J. may have won us the game,” Stotts said that night. “The rebound he got with about a minute and a half, that extra possession was big.”
There have been times this season when Hickson might not have secured late-game rebounds — simply because he would not have been on the floor in the fourth quarter.
Stotts has often tried different lineups in final quarters — he’s mixed in a smaller look with Luke Babbitt at the stretch four and Aldridge at center, and opted for the wingspans of taller interior players Meyers Leonard and Jared Jeffries.
During those moments, Hickson has been the odd starter out. Yet it takes a fourth quarter like Thursday night’s — in nearly eight minutes on the floor, Hickson had six and five — to show his evolution.
“There’s always going to be lapses in the process,” Miller said of Hickson’s work-in-progress maturation. “He came in the league as a very young player and it was always his goal from the day he started playing basketball to become a pro. It’s one thing to become a pro, it’s another thing to live, act and play like a pro.”
“He’s starting to produce on a consistent basis on a level that he’s capable of.”
Matthews, Barton out
Wesley Matthews (left hip contusion, left hip flexor injury) sat out for the fourth consecutive practice.
“He’s getting treatment. He ran a little bit today but we’ll see how it feels (Sunday),” Stotts said. “He’s better than he was, but he wasn’t able to practice so obviously he’s not there yet.”
Will Barton also did not participate in practice after having a procedure on Friday to correct an ingrown toenail.