Hickson in Herzilya: Week 1

J.J. Hickson officially became the Sacramento Kings first player to start his season, debuting Sunday night for Israel’s Bnei HaSharon/Herzilya against Hapoel Holon. With the growing realization that his exploits might be the only basketball we get from any current Kings for a while, we’re going to give you a weekly summary of J.J.’s international adventure, in what will hopefully be an experience that gives Sacramento a better power forward.

First, let’s start with some background on the team J.J. has joined.

Hickson is playing for a team in a problematic position. In the Israeli league, rules dictate that each team can only register four non-Israeli players each game.  It’s a rule meant to ensure the development of local talent in a league that is flooded with American imports. Bnei HaSharon, however, severely lacks quality in the Israeli portion of their roster. The team’s primary Israeli player, wingman Ben Rice, suffered a knee injury which ended his season in training camp, and after three league games, the team’s entire Israeli cadre has scored only 38 points. With a roster that is two-thirds barren and a rookie coach in Roi Hagai, the team is very dependent on its American players.

Those players, other than Hickson, are former Baylor teammates Tweety Carter and LaceDarius Dunn, former Creighton forward Kenny Lawson, and former Rhode Island forward Delroy James. Of course, together with Hickson the team has five “foreign” players, which means that in each and every game, one of the team’s five best players can’t play. Sunday, that player was Lawson.

Considering these circumstances, it should be no surprise that J.J. played 32 minutes even though he’s never played with his teammates and is probably still jetlagged. As it turned out, the game was a perfect microcosm of Hickson’s career so far. Hickson dominated offensively, his athleticism clearly too much against far lesser competition than he’s used to encountering. His offensive moves weren’t too complex – most of the time he would just get the ball down low, power his way towards the rim, and either place the ball in the basket or draw fouls.

It wasn’t anything too impressive basketball-wise, but it was good to see J.J. utilize his physical skills in such an efficient manner. Hickson’s final tally showed 20 points on eight of 12 shooting (four of five from the line), and he even chipped in five assists, matching his NBA career high.

The problems, though, manifested defensively. Bnei HaSharon registered a respectable 80 points (remember, this is a 40 minute game – there are no official pace-adjusted stats for Israeli ball, but a rough estimate places Bnei HaSharon’s offensive efficiency somewhere around a respectable 104 points per 100 possessions). Defensively though, the team fell apart, giving up a ridiculous 119 points – this after Holon scored only 21 in a garbage-time fourth quarter. Another unofficial calculation puts Bnei HaSharon’s defensive efficiency at a downright atrocious 148 points per 100 possessions. For comparison’s sake, in Cleveland’s 55-point defeat to the Los Angeles Lakers last season, probably the worst showing of a Hickson-featured team, the Cavs gave up only 126 points per 100 possessions.

Hickson was definitely a net loss in this regard, whichever way one chooses to look at it. He managed eight rebounds, six of them defensive, which seems nice. But then you see his matchup, Holon’s Bryant Dunston, had 14 boards, eight of them offensive, and you kind of want to throw up. The athleticism that allowed Hickson to easily dominate on offense seemingly dissipated, offering little help on the boards (Holon won the team rebounding battle 47-29) or in altering shots (Hickson recorded no blocks and was generally not much of a hindrance to hopeful scorers).

Hickson showed absolutely no knowledge as to guarding the pick and roll, often getting stuck switching when it wasn’t needed or hedging too hard as his man strolled down the lane for open dunks. When defending one-on-one in the post, things were slightly better just by virtue of Hickson’s leaping ability, but he constantly bit on fakes as Dunston scored a game high 29.

Hickson has never been considered anything near an elite defender, but seeing him struggle so poorly against players not nearly as good as his NBA competition is frightening. Hopefully, this is the result of a new team, a new system, and an entirely new game, and not a deepening problem holding him back as a player to begin with.

Playing abroad should be a positive experience for J.J., who is young enough to need playing time in all its forms.  He’s also fundamentally flawed to the point that working with professionals in a nation that treats him as an unknown could make a huge difference. Nowhere is this more prominent than on defense, a part of the game that is as mental as it is physical. If J.J. is to return a better player once the lockout is over, that’s the first place to start.

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