J.J. Hickson is more than just the least of 15 relatively obscure evils, more than just a lone bright light shining on a roster shrouded in the darkness of the LeBrocalypse. The more momentum the Cleveland Cavaliers generate at the end of this arduous regular season and show signs of life in Year 1 A.LBJ., the clearer that will become.
The 2010-11 campaign has been a tragic one for the Cavaliers, but that’s not to say that it’s one to forget. Though their well-documented struggles have struck sympathy in even the harshest of critics, there’s no mistaking the fact that the embittered franchise is ready to move on. They’ve become – in essence – the feel good story of the year, a story that, although slightly masochistic at times, is impossible not to appreciate.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that, out of the rubble of the city of Cleveland’s shattered hopes and dreams, has emerged a 6’9″ athletic anomaly ready to usher in a new era of Cavaliers basketball, the type of unconventional specimen that bends reality on the basketball court in ways fans watching from afar never knew to expect.
If it sounds familiar, it’s not. The similarities between Hickson’s emergence as a star and that of LeBron James’ seven years prior end there. Whereas the latter moved on in a physical sense, the former remains deeply rooted in the Ohio trenches helping the Cavaliers move on in a different way: emotionally.
Now, two months after losing a record-setting 26 consecutive games, five months after the start of a depressing season and eight months after The Decision, the pity party is over. It’s officially a good time to be a Cavalier.
“We are focusing on us and nobody else. We’re competing now, we’re actually trying to get wins,” says Hickson, “Not to say that we weren’t trying to get wins earlier – but we actually believe we can win every game that we play now.”
It makes sense, and it’s not just win-deprived lunacy talking. The Cavaliers, after a convincing victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, have won back-to-back games for the first time since November. They’ve also walked away with Ws in four of the past eight they’ve played.
Though the spike in morale is team-wide, it’s important to recognize the contributions of Hickson when gauging the long-term legitimacy of the franchise. At 22 years old, Hickson has emerged as not just the most promising prospect on a roster in rebuild, but one of the NBA’s most underrated future All-Stars in general.
In an 11-game span from Mar. 19 to today, Hickson has shown particular consistency after initially hooking vulnerable Cavs fans with promising stat lines earlier this year. In 10 of those 11 games he’s managed to record 16+ points, including seven of 20 or more.
In the 65 games prior to the dominant spell, Hickson scored 20+ just 12 times, an upward trend that doesn’t so much implicate a newfound ability to score (he went for 30+ on Nov. 2 and again on Feb. 4), but rather one to do so consistently. He’s also reached double digits in rebounding in seven of those games – including 19 in a victory over the Charlotte Bobcats earlier this week.
Hickson, like the rest of the Cavaliers, understands the responsibility he’s inherited as an on-court leader of the new generation, and isn’t about to waste his significant opportunity.
“Everybody has to play a better game, work on their game even harder. Everybody has to step up, not just me but all of my teammates.”
But where everybody is capable of helping reassemble the identity of a franchise in transition, only Hickson has the foot speed, agility and anarchistic ability to pilot a 240-pound body through a crowded key and into scoring position and then have a soft enough touch to finish.
“I think it was just god-given,” says Hickson of his comfort level spinning, leaping and careening through the paint. “Everybody’s game is different, not everybody is a robot. Some people aren’t orthodox and that’s what makes the game fun.”
But god-given or not, Hickson isn’t about to let fate determine his production, not with the malleable future of a young Cavaliers team largely in his hands.
“[I’ve been] working on just taking my time, doing my footwork and working on my hands overall.”
The commitment to progress, of course, has already started to pay off. Hickson’s 22.0 points per game in four April appearances dwarf his overall season total of 13.6.
Although it may come as a surprise to fans who spent the better half of the past year feeling sorry for a LeBronless Cavaliers roster, the team no longer needs the sympathy that people were so willing to give them. In all likelihood they never did.
“I came to the Cavs when they were championship contenders, so I had nothing but vets around me,” Hickson explains. “Not just Antwan [Jamison], but guys like Ben Wallace, guys like Wally [Szczerbiak] and [Zydrunas Ilgauskas]. I was a sponge and just soaked everything up.”
Though it’s easy to overlook, it’s an advantage that Hickson and the rest of the young Cavs have over the majority of the league.
“I think it was a blessing to come into the situation that I came in to.”
With just a handful of games left in the regular season and the Cavaliers destined for a a long summer, the hardest part for Hickson will be convincing fans that he’s right.
Eventually, of course, he will and the city of Cleveland will laugh at how they ever thought the pain of LeBron James’ departure would last forever.