HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — The NBA hands out end-of-year awards for just about everything, so why not an MAP award?
Most Adaptable Player.
If such an honor existed, the Denver Nuggets’ 6-foot-9 starting center J.J. Hickson would (again) be a leading candidate. While undersized for the position, he played it all last season for the Portland Trail Blazers and had a breakout year offensively, averaging a double-double (12.7 ppg and 10.4 rpg).
A free agent in the offseason, he signed with Denver where the talented-but yet-to-put-it-all-together 7-footer JaVale McGee was hyped as the starting center and 7-foot-1 free-agent Timofey Mozgov re-signed, too. That meant the bruising, 242-pound Hickson could return to his more natural position of power forward, albeit behind entrenched starter Kenneth Faried, and get back to battling guys more his size.
Here’s what Hickson told me back in February about playing center for the Blazers and what it meant for his impending free agency:
“The NBA world knows what my true position is and they know I’m sacrificing for my team, and I think that helps us even more knowing that I’m willing to play the ‘5’ to help us get wins.”
In July, Hickson, 25, signed a three-year, $16.1 million contract with the Nuggets. Five games into the season, McGee went down with a stress fracture to his leg and remains out indefinitely. First-year coach Brian Shaw could have picked Mozgov as the traditional choice to start in Shaw’s inside-first offense. But Shaw chose Hickson.
“Some things never change it feels like,” Hickson said of starting at center again. “History does tend to repeat itself at times. I’m doing whatever it takes to win games and if it means playing center, that’s what I’ll do.”
Hickson said Shaw came to him and simply told him, “You’re starting at center.”
“Ever since that day, I accepted the challenge,” Hickson said.
Since Hickson took over at center, the Nuggets (13-8) have won 12 of 16 games following a rough 1-4 start that had critics of the franchise’s sudden overhaul — specifically the firing of longtime coach George Karl — shouting told-you-so.
Hickson is averaging 10.5 ppg and 8.2 rpg this season. He’s produced five double-doubles in his last 16 games — including an 18-point, 19-rebound effort against Oklahoma City — plus six more games with at least eight rebounds. As the starting center, he’s averaging 12.1 ppg on 51.9 percent shooting and 8.5 rpg in 25.6 mpg.
Without All-Star-caliber point guard Ty Lawson in the lineup the last two games due to a hamstring injury, the Nuggets won both to finish their six-game all-Eastern Conference road swing 4-2. Hickson combined for 21 points on 50 percent shooting and 18 rebounds in the two games while essentially splitting time with Mozgov.
“After every game, every practice I feel we’re jelling more and more and we trust each other more on the court,” Hickson said prior to the trip. “We’re playing together, we’re having fun, we’re learning how to close out games. Just the camaraderie amongst each other is great.”
Initially, Hickson’s signing in Denver seemed curious because it seemed to mean his accepting a bench role behind Faried. But the Nuggets needed additional frontline toughness and Hickson is happy to deliver. He won’t earn votes for the All-Defensive team, but he’s also not the turnstile the advanced stats crowd makes him out to be. Part of it is simply that Hickson is undersized and out of position practically every game.
Until McGee returns, Hickson is likely to continue to start in the middle. And even then, it’s not like McGee was tearing it up before his injury. Shaw saw fit to play McGee just 15.8 mpg as the starter, fewer minutes than even Karl — hardly McGee’s biggest fan — could stand bringing him off the bench.
When McGee eventually does work himself back into the starting lineup, it will at least provide the opportunity for Hickson to return to power forward. Not that he won’t keep fighting to stay in the starting lineup, no matter the position.
“I’d be lying if I said I came here to play backup, but that’s competition,” Hickson said. “That’s still to be determined and we’ll cross that road when we get there.”
Until then, Hickson will just keep adapting.