INDEPENDENCE —The Cavaliers would love it if J.J. Hickson improved by leaps and bounds, because the 21-year-old can certainly leap and ’bound.
Hickson, who struggled to pick up the mental aspects of the game as a rookie, looked much more comfortable Tuesday when Cleveland opened the 2009 exhibition season with a 92-87 victory over the Charlotte Bobcats, putting up 15 points and five rebounds in 17 minutes.
“The progress and confidence he’s shown are exciting,” said Cavaliers coach Mike Brown, whose team went through another workout Thursday at Cleveland Clinic Courts. “I’m looking forward to seeing how he turns out this year.”
Hickson, who was 6-of-9 from the field and 3-of-3 at the line against the Bobcats, showed flashes of brilliance early last season, but never really picked up Brown’s defensive principles and quickly fell out of the rotation.
The 6-foot-9, 242-pound power forward later suffered a back injury and was shut down for the season, but after getting healthy Hickson showed some initiative and spent large portions of the summer training with superstar LeBron James.
“It has helped me a lot,” Hickson said. “The main thing he has stressed to me is not to get complacent, to just be consistent.”
Hickson was anything but consistent as a giddy, star-struck rookie, which is why James worked with him in Akron, Cleveland and San Diego in the offseason.
“I had J.J. with me all summer before I went overseas,” James said. “Everywhere I went, I had him working out with me because I knew the potential he had. He’s definitely implementing everything he learned from me and everyone else.”
Hickson is still raw and still makes mental mistakes —Brown pulled him aside and immediately went over a defensive assignment after removing him from the Charlotte game —but there’s no question he has talent.
Brown knows that as well as anyone, but the coach is extremely tough on Hickson because he wants the youngster to develop good habits and learn to do things the right way.
“You can jump higher than anybody on our team, almost anybody in the league,” Brown said of his message to Hickson. “You’ve just got to keep doing the little things, find bodies to box out.”
Brown’s point is that if Hickson learns how to take care of the little things, he’ll earn more time on the court and the bigger things will start to take care of themselves.
It’s taken some time, but Hickson, who has an excellent chance to get decent minutes behind starter Anderson Varejao, appears to be catching on.
“As you could see, the whole time Coach was talking to me, it was all about defense,” Hickson said of the Charlotte game. “That’s something I have to focus on and stay focused on the whole game.”
Hickson’s offensive game is also still a work in progress, but his potential was on display against the Bobcats in the first half, when he scored 11 points in less than 10 minutes.
Moments after entering the contest, Hickson scored on the interior, then converted a three-point play after running the lane, catching a pass, scoring and getting fouled. He also canned an 18-foot jumper and hit an impressive 13-foot turnaround, but still seemed to be uncertain at the defensive end.
“He’s a young kid,” Cleveland center Shaquille O’Neal said. “He has a lot of raw talent. The good thing is he has a lot of great players to work with.”
James, who is attempting to teach Hickson how a successful professional practices and carries himself, is one of those players.
“When you’re a young guy, it’s about disciplining yourself,” James said. “You’re excited to be a part of the league, but you don’t really know what it takes to be good and get out on the court.
“I’m teaching him about being a professional and understanding you are a professional athlete. You should carry that type of attitude no matter where you are. It’s more than basketball. Once he figures that out, basketball becomes easy.”
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.