Meet J.J. Hickson, The Double-Double Machine Driving Portland

Like a present-day Brian Grant, J.J. Hickson won’t show up in many conversations about the NBA’s most impressive big men. But just as Grant was an undersized forward who had 39 double-doubles between 1997 and 2000 for Portland, Hickson’s penchant for double-doubles is showing more with every game that claiming him off waivers last March was one of the smartest personnel moves Portland has made in a while. At the worst, the Trail Blazers have a trade chip adding value every game. At best, he’s been a key reason why Portland has the — surprise! — eighth-best record in the Western Conference.

What the 6-9 Hickson is doing isn’t solely a nice Portland story contained to the Northwest alone, much like the seasonal microbrews you’ll find dotting the Rose City. His eight straight double-double streak that began Dec. 5 is the longest streak by any Trail Blazer dating to 1985 (when Basketball Reference’s records start), and is the third-longest this season in the NBA, three behind Zach Randolph’s 11 to start the season. And from NBA.com statistics, we learn his 20.9 rebounds per 40 minutes are the highest of any player in the last 10 games averaging more than token minutes per game.

The Blazers are 5-3 in that span; Hickson averages 16.4 points and 13.8 rebounds per game in those eight games.

The praise for rookie point guard Damian Lillard and steady power forward LaMarcus Aldridge deservedly grab the headlines, but Hickson’s contributions are loud and steady, like the diesel engine of an old truck. In Portland’s long history of centers who don’t quite fit the mold — Arvydas Sabonis was terrific but out of his world-beating prime and never a grinder down low; Marcus Camby was effective but so, so old; Joel Przybilla was a defense-only star; and Greg Oden, well, you know — Hickson’s height and defensive blind spots may make him the most ill-fitting in some regards. So, last season’s interim GM Chad Buchanan, still on staff under current GM Neil Olshey, must laugh a little knowing the player he grabbed and who would never make it through Central Casting for center, has played like the prototypical center the team has searched for all along.

We shouldn’t limit our surprise at just his play in the last month. Since he became a Trail Blazer, he has 23 double-doubles in 44 games. This is maybe not so much a revelation about his sudden ability as it is a nod to a newfound consistency and a perfect storm where Portland’s rebuilding attitude last season and its depth issues this season have presented nearly 30 minutes for him to play each game. Given space to play, he’s become a leading candidate for most improved player. Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders has been revelatory for his turnaround, capped so far with a 17-point, 20-point maiming of Boston last week in which he block the potential game-tying shot in overtime, too. Hickson, however, holds a clear statistical edge, from effective shooting to rebounding rates. From Basketball Reference:

Where players such as Sanders or Memphis’ Marc Gasol beat Hickson is in defensive points allowed, with both ranking in the top 12 of the league this year in stinginess. Hickson isn’t to their level at keeping bigger players off the block (he’s a 6-9 starting center, remind you), but he’s elite at recovering from those mistakes on the glass.

His play has his name surfacing as potential trade pieces for a contender needing a double-double machine with a cheap one-year salary. From Jason Quick of The Oregonian on Wednesday night comes this nugget about how Hickson’s value is shooting higher, faster than Florida real estate in 2005:

Hickson, on the other hand, could be expendable, in part because he is playing out of this world, far better than his $4 million salary. After finishing with 17 points and 14 rebounds Wednesday, Hickson has nine consecutive double-doubles, and is averaging 12.8 points and 11.1 rebounds, statistics that could be pricing himself right out of Portland. Not only will teams be interested in his high-energy game, the Blazers might be interested in getting something in return before he hits the free agent market.

For now he’s with the Blazers, but even they will be a buyer come July when the fifth-year player from North Carolina State is an unrestricted free agent. In a season that’s only one-third finished it’s dangerous to project his future after such a relatively inauspicious start in Cleveland and Sacramento, with the exception of his 2010-11 season (averaging 17.6 points and 11.1 rebounds per 36 minutes). His 44 games as a Blazer, however, are pushing the trend from buyer beware to buyers preparing to open their wallets.

What do you think?

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