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Undersized J.J. Hickson averages double-double, thanks to work rate

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Blazers center J.J. Hickson doesn't get his number called often on offense, but he is averaging 11 points a game mostly from hustle plays, in a highly efficient 28 minutes per outing.Growing up an only child in Atlanta, J.J. Hickson learned to do a lot of things for himself.

That self-reliance has served him well in his role as the Trail Blazers’ starting center.

Coach Terry Stotts calls Hickson’s number on offense about as often as he does 9-1-1, which come to think of it, wouldn’t be a bad nickname for Portland’s man in the middle.

Have emergency, will travel.

As the fifth option on offense for the Blazers — who play host to San Antonio tonight at the Rose Garden — Hickson has done the dirty work for his team and has done it well this season. The 6-9, 240-pound post man is averaging 11.4 points and 10.1 rebounds, scoring mostly on put-backs and chances around the rim. In Monday’s 92-74 win over Toronto, Hickson collected 16 points and 11 boards, making all seven shots from the field.

“J.J. would like to be more involved in the offense, but he’s so productive in his role,” Stotts says. “He has accepted it, and he needs to, because that’s what we need from him.”

Hickson isn’t complaining.

“I could play a lot of different ways,” he says. “On this team, what’s going to keep me on the floor is doing what I’m doing. I’m going to keep doing what Coach (Stotts) asks of me and try to make the most of my opportunities.”

Though undersized in the post, Hickson ranks 12th among NBA players at his position in efficiency ratings, ahead of such centers as Marcin Gortat, Omer Asik, Chris Kaman, Nikola Pekovic, Roy Hibbert — yes, the same guy the Blazers offered a boatload of money on the free-agent market last summer — and DeAndre Jordan. Hickson is averaging fewer minutes (28.1) than any of the dozen centers ahead of him on the efficiency list, too.

Hickson is tied for ninth in the NBA in rebounding and averages 3.9 offensive boards per game — seventh among NBA players, fifth among the league’s centers. He also ranks fifth in the league in field-goal percentage (.553) and is tied for seventh in double-doubles with 11.

“One of my strengths is to not have plays called for me but to hit the boards, be active,” Hickson says. “If you call my number, I’m ready, too. It’s a matter of being in the right spot and making myself available to make basketball plays.”

Last season, Hickson, 24, averaged 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds and shot .543 in 19 games (10 starts) for Portland after being acquired on waivers on March 15 following his release by Sacramento. His poor play with the lowly Kings through the first half of last season was a surprise given that he had averaged 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds in 2010-11, his third year with a Cleveland team that had quickly become non-competitive with the departure of LeBron James.

Acquired by Sacramento via trade in the offseason, Hickson began the season as the Kings’ starting power forward but, by a few months later, he had fallen out of their rotation. Kings coaches saw a center in a power forward’s body and a player with bad hands, too.

Hickson offers no excuses and no criticism of the Kings, either.

“It just didn’t work out for me there,” he says with a shrug. “Now I’m here, and it’s working out for me. I love the city, I love the fans, I love the atmosphere here.”

Portland chose to not immediately retain Hickson after last season, allowing him to go into unrestricted free agency as it pursued other options such as Hibbert. On July 13, the Blazers retained him with a one-year, $4-million contract that allows both sides to re-evaluate the situation after season’s end. He says he never seriously considered going elsewhere.

“I’m not saying I wasn’t worried, but I was confident I’d be on a team somewhere this season,” Hickson says. “Portland put the offer on the table, and it was a no-brainer.”

Portland took center Meyers Leonard with the 11th pick in the June draft, knowing he wasn’t yet ready to be a starter in the league. In the interim, Hickson has filled the void well.

“His energy, his pursuit of the ball his athleticism ... when he brings it — and he does most of the time — it helps us at both ends,” Stotts says. “On this team, he is unique with that skill set.”

James Edward Hickson grew up in a single-parent family, the son of Kenna Myers, who died of liver failure when he was 10. His grandmother, Marie Myers, took over raising the child from there. Money wasn’t plentiful, but they made do.

“She worked a couple of jobs to make sure we had the bills paid and I had clothes on my back,” he says.

Hickson gained a spirit of independence from his mother, his grandmother and others in his life during those years.

“The people who raised me, the people I grew up around, they wouldn’t let me fail,” he says. “They wouldn’t let themselves fail. I was a sponge. I soaked up everything people around me did.”

One of those people was a father figure, Desmond Eastmond, his AAU coach during his high school years.

“He helped with a lot of things, on and off the court,” Hickson says. “He was a big part of my life, and still is.”

Life wasn’t always easy. Hickson admits he had a stubborn side as a child.

“I wanted to do things my way,” he says with a grin. “I didn’t get in a lot of trouble, but I could have. Luckily, the people around me steered me in the right direction.”

One of the top-ranked prep stars in the country, Hickson narrowed his college choices to Tennessee, Arizona and Florida before signing with North Carolina State. After shooting .591, averaging 14.8 points and ranking second in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 8.5 rebounds as a freshman, he went into the NBA draft and was taken by Cleveland with the 19th pick in 2008.

“My dream was to get to the NBA no matter how long it took,” Hickson says. “It was a blessing I was able to go to college for one year and leave early.”

With his first NBA contract, Hickson was able to buy a home and a car for his grandmother.

“She doesn’t have to work anymore,” he says. “Everybody’s happy.”

Hickson lives alone in a condo in the Pearl District and doesn’t mind his periods of solitude. As he looks back, having no siblings had its advantages.

“When I was younger, I didn’t think so,” he says. “Now that I’m older and much more mature, I think it helped me that I was an only child.

“I have no problem being in my house all by myself and not going crazy in this Portland rain. It helped me learn more about myself. I’m alone a lot, but I get along with the people I need to get along with. I’m just thankful I’m healthy and breathing and have good people in my life. I’m a basic, average guy.”

A basic, average guy who stands 6-9 and pounds the boards better than most of his peers in the NBA these days, that is.

After this season, Hickson will have an opportunity to sign a contract that offers him more years and more stability. He hopes that will be with the Blazers, but he knows there are no guarantees.

“Who wouldn’t want to sign a long-term deal?” he says. “I hope it’s here, but no one knows what the future holds. All I can do is control my play on the court, and everything else will fall into place.”

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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