What was once a promising career quickly turned into a mirage as J.J. Hickson never shifted into the player Cavaliers fans once thought he could be. He had the perfect setup to thrive, but that situation didn’t last forever and he couldn’t turn it into something great. And he could have been really good. At least I believe he could have.
Hickson was drafted in the 2008 draft by the Cleveland Cavaliers after his freshman season at North Carolina State with the No. 19 pick. Hickson was a beast at NC State and won several freshman awards before deciding to forgo the remaining years of his college tenure. When he started his career in Cleveland, there was legitimate hype.
Hickson had a “so-so” year as a rookie — about the production one might expect from the 19th pick — but he really ramped things up in his second season. Playing alongside LeBron James and coming off a run at the NBA Finals placed Hickson is a favorable position that a lot of young players might do anything to be in. He saw the advantage he was given, and correctly abused it. Hickson averaged 8.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game while shooting 55.4 precent from the field during his second season. Cutting to the rim and being someone LeBron (and sometimes Anderson Varejao) could rely on to make plays at the basket.
He then hit a nice spike in production into his third season. His third — and arguably best — season during his NBA career saw him average 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. This was also the Cavaliers’ first season sans-LeBron.
This is where the hot takes came out. I can’t find the actual social media post, but out there somewhere is a much younger version of myself blabbering on about how Hickson was about two or three years away from being an All-Star. Like, an NBA All-Star.
Hickson was an excellent rebounder for an “undersized” big, if 6’9” and roughly 240 pounds can be considered undersized. But what made Hickson so tantalizing was his insane athleticism, his ability to knock down mid-range jumpers, and his knack for emphatically blocking shots. He was an excellent rim runner and cutter too for a big man, allowing him free looks at the rim just about every game. However, his success in Cleveland was short-lived.
Hickson was traded to the Sacramento Kings for Omri Casspi — who could easily have his own “forgotten Cavs player” article — following his third season. He became somewhat of a forgotten entity for a while. Due to the lockout, he hardly played any games in Sacramento before being waived and picked up by the Portland Trail Blazers, where he would finish the remaining 19 games of the season.
His time in Portland proved what myself and many others believed. Hickson could be a good NBA player, but not an All-Star. That ship had long sailed at this point. However, he was only 23 at the time and then averaged 12.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game at age 24 after signing with the Blazers on a one-year deal. This is when LaMarcus Aldridge was not yet commonly known as the overrated shot-chucker he is viewed as today and Damian Lillard was just starting out. Essentially, the Blazers were bad and their 33 win season showed exactly why despite Hickson’s successes.
Hickson then signed with the Denver Nuggets the following year and after a solid start to the season — averaging 11.8 points and 9.2 rebounds per game — he tore his ACL in March during a game against the Dallas Mavericks. ACL injuries have ruined careers in professional sports many times before and Hickson was another victim of an untimely and unfortunate event. He never would return the caliber player that he was before. The athleticism and power that once defined him, was now lost.
Hickson currently plays in China for Jiangsu Tongxi of the Chinese Basketball Association and somehow is only 28. Whether or not Hickson plans to make a return to the NBA is to be determined. But one thing I do know is this: Hickson will always be my first hot take gone cold.
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