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Denver Nuggets Player Breakdown: J.J. Hickson

There’s always that one guy who gets picked on. In grade school, it was that lanky guy with glasses who wore corduroys and short-sleeved button-ups. In high school, people targeted the guy who stayed in his room and played World of Warcraft, while eating pizza till three in the morning on a Friday night. Now, it’s that guy at your corporate job who wears shorts and shoes with no socks in 30-degree weather (this guy right here).

Well, just like any other job, the NBA has a group of guys who receive an unjust amount of ridicule as well. Only, in their case, the people doing the gnawing and jabbing isn’t their peers. It’s their customers, the fans.

This is probably as good a time as any to introduce you to J.J. Hickson, a player who’s so often on the receiving end of this torment that it’s become an inextricable part of his identity as a player.

Those who live in Cleveland, Portland or Denver understand this phenomena, as do those who are students of the NBA. But otherwise, while you may have heard his name, I assure you that you don’t entirely comprehend the J.J. Hickson experience.

Let me tell you, it’s a wild ride. One minute, he’s snatching offensive and defensive rebounds with the ferocity of a crazed bull, the next, well, I guess he’s kind of doing that same thing. Turns out Hickson is pretty one-dimensional. But he’s really really good at a few things (i.e. rebounding, finishing at the rim and gobbling up tough minutes), and last time I checked, those same strengths had Tristan Thompson on the verge of an $80-plus million dollar deal.

Sure, Hickson is a tad porous on the defensive side of the ball, and he demonstrates very little that resembles an offensive skill set, but good lord, he’s on the books for $5.6 million this season. That’s chump-change when put up against other players with similar weaknesses in today’s landscape. Let’s try to lay off the guy a little this season, especially since it looks like he’ll play out his deal and be with the team for the year.

What is he good at?

Well, I’ve already pretty much covered this. He can rebound, run the floor and finish at the rim. There really isn’t much more to it than that.

But those also happen to be the same attributes shared by many highly compensated players throughout the league. The aforementioned Thompson may be the most obvious example. And actually, when you take a look at their stats side-by-side, they aren’t a whole hell of a lot different.

Per-game stats

jj tristan

Per-36 stats

jj tristan 2

You’ll notice their per-game stats are virtually identical, but what really stands out is that Hickson actually has the advantage, almost across-the-board, when comparing their per-36 numbers. I always think that bench players have a much higher advantage in per-36 minute stats since they’re able to expend a large amount of energy in bursts. This obviously boosts their production when extending them across the same measurement period.

But Thompson really only plays seven minutes more per game on an average night, so it’s not like we’re comparing a 40-minute starter to a ninth or 10th man here. There’s also not as significant of an age gap between Hickson and Thompson as you may think. Hickson is only 26, while Thompson is 24. I’m not saying that Hickson still has the upside of Thompson, but Hickson should still theoretically be in the prime of his career, so you shouldn’t expect any precipitous drop-off in terms of production.

I know there’s more to it than these counting stats, and again I recognize that he hurts you in a lot ways, but paired with the right player in the frontcourt — not Kenneth Faried — he’s still able to wear down opposing bigs and eat up minutes, which is a very valuable asset to have sitting on your bench.

Just please don’t tell me he’s starting…Please say he’s not starting.

What is he not so good at?

This is where all the venom stems from. He’s really not very good in some fairly impactful ways. Very often, he sacrifices good off-the-ball defense for better rebounding positioning. If his defender misses, he’ll be there to gobble up the rebound, but he’ll also be allowing an easy shot in the process.

Last season, his opponents shot better than 52 percent against him at the rim, per SportVU, which doesn’t exactly earn him the title of “rim protector.” However, when he actually defends, which is alarmingly rare, he does okay. His opponents shot about 47 percent in situations in which he defended shots, which just happened to be the same mark as Thompson.

The problem is, he just doesn’t do that very much. There isn’t a great way that I know of to measure this, but it’s definitely telling that he grabbed four uncontested rebounds per game last season — in 19 minutes per game on the court. Compare that to his 2.2 contested rebounds per game, and you can quickly begin to piece together an understanding of how this discrepancy came to be.

Out of every player in the league who averaged between 19 and 21 minutes per game, there were only two others who snared more uncontested boards per game: Kevin Garnett (4.8), who’s like 58-years-old, and Kris Humphries (4.2). That’s it.

Tiago Splitter (2.7) and Brandan Wright (2.5) were two other notable bigs who played the same number of minutes. You can see that Hickson pulls down almost twice as many uncontested boards as either of them.

And this is why Hickson is picked on and ridiculed so feverishly by NBA fans. He, much like Reggie Evans did so famously for years, continually sacrifices good defense for padded rebounding stats and easy transition buckets.

So what should his role be?

None of that’s to say he’s not useful though, and this is where the distinction needs to be drawn between the popular narrative about him and the value he actually provides for such minimal investment.

He plays a tough brand of basketball, he’s physical and for the most part hustles. Even if that hustle tends to show up more on the offensive end, he’s good for a rebound every three minutes he’s in the game and he gets out and runs on the break. There were only 30 other players in the league last season who pulled down rebounds with more frequency than he did.

He can be a useful basketball player when played in the right situations, and used in moderation.  I wouldn’t hate a secondary lineup that featured him alongside Darrell Arthur, who can stretch the floor and plays hard-nosed defense, both things that could help cover up some of Hickson’s glaring weaknesses.

At the end of the day, it’s time to begin accepting Hickson for who he is, and appreciating the things he does well, all at a reasonable price tag. At least this is what I’m going to tell myself to get me through the last season on his contract.

You see, even I can’t avoid the trap.

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