The primary backcourt rotation players have received their season grades, after Wesley Matthews and Will Barton received theirs in the last Blazer Report Card. Now, we move on to the big guys in the middle: centers J.J. Hickson and Meyers Leonard.
J.J. Hickson | #21 | Center-Forward
J.J. Hickson was very much a pleasant surprise for the Blazers this season. The expectations for him were modest at best, having been waived by the Sacramento Kings (the Sacramento Kings!) in the 2011-2012 season and signing a $4 million, 1-year deal with Portland in July. So, it was welcome wonder when Hickson finished the season averaging a double-double.
With very little depth at the center position this year, Hickson was able to provide Portland with a much needed presence in the paint and on the glass. Though undersized at 6’9″, he regularly racked up double-digits in rebounds and finished with 47 games with 10+ rebounds (as opposed to 33 in single-digits). Even while playing less than 30 minutes per game, he finished 7th in rebounds per game, league-wide. The only other player in the top 10 that managed the same was the Brooklyn Nets’ Reggie Evans, a man that might’ve been born specifically to rebound basketballs.
Hickson also found a niche role for himself offensively, and became an important presence for Portland. He wasn’t necessarily a featured part of the offense, but in a starting lineup with a trio of three-point shooters and arguably the league’s top scorer at the true power forward position in LaMarcus Aldridge, Hickson found a way to be extremely useful. With all the attention given to his teammates at the three-point line, mid-range, and the low block, Hickson was able to camp under the rim and get free dunks, putbacks, and offensive rebounds. He did this to the tune of 3.3 offensive rebounds per game, a 56.2% field goal percentage, and 122 season dunks–great production for Portland to get from Hickson offensively.
In spite of Hickson’s excellent energy and production, he was far from a perfect fit. This was most notable on the defensive end, where Aldridge and Hickson struggled mightily guarding the paint. Aldridge is an average man-to-man defender at best, and doesn’t block many shots. Hickson, as the man in the middle, couldn’t hold down the fort for Portland. He’s a bulky and feisty grinder, but he’s also an undersized center that, like Aldridge, doesn’t block shots. Additionally, he makes numerous mental mistakes throughout a game and is prone to defensive lapses. Hickson’s struggles on defense at the center position were a huge part of the Blazers’ defensive woes this season–they didn’t have a first line of defense around the paint to anchor their defense.
General manager Neil Olshey has gone on record to say that Hickson will not be back next season. It’s an amicable split after a solid season for Hickson, but he is a natural power forward and Portland needs a rim defender.
Meyers Leonard | #11 | Center
Portland’s 11th overall pick in last year’s draft, Meyers Leonard, was clearly a work-in-progress during his rookie season. The 7’1″ young gun showed off some exciting flashes of athleticism during the season, but at the same time, you could see his many deficiencies. Portland’s looking for a franchise center to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, but after his first season ended with mixed results, legitimate doubts persist about Leonard.
Leonard’s athleticism was exciting to watch, but that wasn’t the most encouraging aspect of his game; that was his shooting touch. Leonard showed a developing jumpshot from mid-range, and even mustered up the courage for a handful of three-pointers as the season ended (finishing 3-7 on the season). Here is a link to his shot chart for the year, courtesy of NBA.com. If Leonard can continue to develop his jumpshot and make it a consistent weapon (i.e. Chris Bosh), he could become a unique weapon for Portland as a 7-foot “stretch 5″, similar to a Zydrunas Ilgauskas.
However, Leonard struggled mightily in doing the things one would call “big man things”. To be more clear, Leonard struggled rebounding, boxing out, banging down low, and guarding the paint,. You know, the same things that Portland is dumping J.J. Hickson for.
Leonard’s rebound numbers are simply poor for an athletic 7’1″ big man–they’re almost guard-esque. Even when extrapolated to 36 minutes, they stand at 7.6. Leonard has a slim frame for his size (only 245 lbs), and struggles to box out NBA centers. He gets pushed around in the paint easily, and defensively, he simply doesn’t have the ability to stay with whoever he’s guarding. Even with his athleticism and height, Leonard doesn’t block shots, either. In an April 10 start against the Los Angeles Lakers, Leonard was absolutely taken to school by Dwight Howard, allowing Howard to go 9-11 for 20 points. That was perhaps the best example all season of Leonard’s defensive ineptitudes, as Howard beat Leonard in the post, off the dribble, and without the ball.
It may be another season or two before Leonard develops into a reliable player for Portland. He has many deficiencies in his current game, and they will not be easy to address. Leonard needs to get in the weight room, the video room, and the practice court. Fortunately, despite his shortcomings at this stage in his development, he could still turn out to be a star one day.