Continued Progression

The one thing every NBA coach seeks from young players is constant improvement. Not only do they want to see their youngsters make strides on a daily basis in practice, but they also want to see that improvement manifest itself during games.

That has definitely been the case for NC State product J.J. Hickson, who just completed his third professional season with Cleveland.

Hickson, the 19th overall pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, played just one season for the Wolfpack but it was a solid campaign for the 6-foot-9 power forward. He averaged 14.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and shot an impressive 59 percent from the field, earning a rightful place on the ACC's All-Freshman Team back in 2008.

As a rookie with the Cavs, he found playing time pretty hard to come by, something many rookies experience in their first year. In 62 games, he averaged four points and around three rebounds a game in about 11 minutes a night.

Last year, he started for much of the season and played in 81 of 82 possible games, averaging 8.5 points and almost five boards as his minutes per game increased to around 21.

This year he averaged about 28 minutes a night, totaling averaging 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds. Hickson also set career highs in both points with 31, a mark he has achieved twice so far this season, and also in rebounds with 20, which he accomplished on January 22, 2011 in a loss to Chicago.

In his last 46 games, Hickson totaled 27 double-doubles. He ended the season with a string of 11 double-doubles in his last 13 games, averaging 19.1 points and 12.5 rebounds and shooting 51.3 percent from the field over that stretch.

"I started last year for most of the season, so starting is nothing new to me. The big thing [this year] is playing against other fives or against other power forwards this year," he said. "I'm just trying to win and at the end of the day, it's all about wins and losses. I'm trying to come out there and help our team win."

It's not hard to notice that his numbers were way up from last year, something this NC State product attributes to some simple work during the offseason.

"I focused on my jumper. It has been kind of streaky lately, but I worked on it a lot this summer," he said.

But there has been a huge downside to the 2010-11 season as Cleveland made news for losing a league-record 26 straight games before breaking the streak on February 11 with a win over the Clippers. Five days after that, they accomplished the LA double-double by also beating the reigning NBA champion Lakers. Before that, the last time the Cavaliers had won was back on Dec. 18, 2010 when they beat the Knicks, 109-102.

After reaching the playoffs his first two seasons, the constant losing was something new to Hickson.

"It's been tough but we're not worrying about previous games," he said. "We're worrying about trying to get that next win. That's it. We've got a young group. We've been through some adversity. Even though we're a young team, we're still a no excuse team. We'll continue to work hard and get better every day."

Teammate Ramon Sessions is new to Cleveland after playing in both Milwaukee and Minnesota but he liked what he has seen thus far from his power forward.

"He's growing every day. That's one thing you can say about him," Sessions said. "He's young but he's growing every day. His game is maturing. He's rebounding. He's playing hard. He's giving it all he's got out there. He's growing. That's all you can ask for a player his age-to keep growing and getting better."

But like many who have played for him, Hickson knows the foundation for his current success was laid during his time at NC State under Sidney Lowe.

"It was a good experience," Hickson said of his time at NC State. "Coach Lowe, he was a great coach. I learned a lot from him and my teammates. It was a good year for me."

However, his relationship with Lowe wasn't all about the hardwood.

"It wasn't just about basketball. I think he genuinely cared about me as a person and not just as a basketball player," he said. "He was kind of like a father figure to me. We talked a lot on various subjects other than basketball. He taught me about his experiences of being a young player. It was a learning experience for me. I just tried to soak everything in. From day one, I got committed. I think that started there, laying the foundation to get better at basketball and to get ready for the next level."

And that solid foundation allowed him to develop a personality trait that every young player who aspires to experience success in the Association must have-patience.

"As far as basketball, I think my patience [is how I've changed the most]. I'm a lot more unselfish [than I was as a rookie]," he said. "At times in high school and college, I think I was more selfish. Now I'm playing team basketball. I just let the game come to me. That's the biggest difference. Of course, a lot of rookies have to be patient. The hardest thing about basketball overall is learning how to be patient. Whether you're on the court or off of it, you have to be patient."

Of course, the big story surrounding Cleveland happened last summer when star player LeBron James bolted for Miami. Hickson wasn't asked about all that controversy but he was asked about playing for a new head coach in Byron Scott, a key member of all those Lakers championship teams from the 1980s under Pat Riley.

"Coach Scott is a great coach. He played in the big games and is a great player who knows what it takes," he said. "So anything he says, you have to listen to him and know he knows what he's talking about."

Speaking of his two 31-point performances earlier this year, the first one, on November 2, 2010, came against Atlanta, who also has a fellow NC State product, Josh Powell on their roster.

"I know Josh from outside of basketball so when we see each other on the court, we laugh it up and talk about other things besides basketball. He's a great guy and I wish him the best," Hickson said.

So, in just three short years, J.J. Hickson has gone from being an NBA greenhorn who wasn't logging a ton of minutes and making much of a contribution to an integral part of a very young team in Cleveland.

As the Cavs continue to put additional pieces around him and his teammates, it will truly be interesting to track this NC State product's continuing progression. The early returns on this big man are pretty solid, so it's not hard to see him being an NBA all-star in the near future.

One thing's for sure, if he does receive such an honor, a great deal of the credit will have to go to his one year spent in Raleigh. That was a time that truly laid the foundation for his current success. Just ask J.J. and he'll tell you as much.


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