Gee, wouldn’t Greg Oden look good penciled in at the 5 spot for the Portland Trail Blazersright about now?
Okay, okay sorry. That’s the last time I’ll mention the enigmatic Oden’s name, but with the Blazers’ starting lineup looking solid one through four—the second starting frontcourt position remains a question mark.
Promising rookie Meyers Leonard will likely start the season on the bench while incumbent J.J. Hickson starts alongside LaMarcus Aldridge. There is no doubt that Leonard is the long-term solution at the position, but as it stands now, Hickson seems to be the stopgap.
Prior to training camp, head coach Terry Stotts told the Oregonian’s Joe Freeman that Hickson would probably be the guy.
“J.J. is the incumbent,” Stotts told Freeman. “I’m not saying he’s going to be the starting center opening night. We’ll have to see how training camp goes, see how the preseason goes, and then we’ll make that determination. Meyers (Leonard) has played very well (this summer). But it’s just like politics: J.J. has been here, he’s the returner, so going into it he has the advantage.”
Stotts confirmed this much before the Blazers’ first exhibition game last Wednesday, Oct. 10, officially naming Hickson the starter. But by Friday, things got a little rockier.
The 7’1”, 245-pound Leonard got his first start of the preseason last Friday while Hickson was sidelined nursing sore ribs. Leonard responded by scoring 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting with eight rebounds, one steal and one block in 21 minutes of encouraging action.
“That’s what we’ve been seeing throughout (training) camp,” shooting guard Wesley Matthews told Freeman after the game. “He’s got a lot to offer. When he plays with energy, he alters the game and he can make plays. We’re going to be seeing a lot of that this season.”
Leonard certainly showed the solid potential that made him the 11th selection in last year’s draft, but he also showed he still has a ways to go in terms of consistency and awareness.
“It was a rocky start for the rookie,” said Joe Freeman of the Oregonian. “For much of the first quarter, Leonard roamed around the court like a chicken with his head cut off.”
Leonard will struggle at times this season as he continues to adjust to the speed of NBA basketball, but with the downs will undoubtedly come the ups, as his talent starts to catch up with his adjustment process—this much he has already acknowledged.
“The similarity is that being a college freshman out of high school is like coming in as an NBA rookie – you have a lot to learn,” wrote Leonard in his NBA.com diary. “By the second year, you just understand more.”
There is no question that Leonard will see minutes this season in the Blazers’ frontcourt. How much so will likely depend on the production they get from the high-motored Hickson, as well as where Portland finds themselves in the standings.
If the Blazers realize by March or so that they are out of it, there would be no reason not to insert Leonard into the starting lineup, thus giving him valuable experience entering year two.
But for now, Hickson looks to energize a starting lineup that includes Damian Lillard at the point, Wesley Matthews at the 2, Nicolas Batum at the 3 and LaMarcus Aldridge in the frontcourt—and don’t count out Hickson as someone who can contribute as a solid starter.
The four-year veteran returned to action off the bench Monday, scoring 11 points on 4-of-8 shooting with seven rebounds in 23 minutes of action. Leonard also came off the bench, with reserve Joel Freeland starting at center. He played 15 minutes while scoring five points and grabbing three rebounds.
Hickson filled in capably last spring after Aldridge went down with a lower back injury. He averaged 14.8 points per game and 9.2 rebounds in April.
While Hickson may be a tad undersized at 6’9”, he is an impressive athlete who finishes well around the rim. That being said, his defensive prowess doesn’t match that of the shot blocking seven-footer Leonard.
“[Hickson] is a solid athlete but hugely mistake-prone on defense,” said ESPN analyst John Hollinger. “[He is] overmatched as a center.”
With Aldridge being a natural 4, Leonard may in fact be the better frontcourt partner so that Hickson does not have to play a position, center, in which he is overmatched. On opening night, though, Hickson will almost assuredly be the guy on the court for tip-off, but as the season wears on, look for Leonard to challenge him for minutes.
“Of all the possibilities [to crack into the starting lineup midseason], one that seems likely is Leonard maturing into a starting-caliber center,” wrote OregonLive.com.
With seven long months until season’s end, the promising Leonard will have plenty of time to show coaches and fans alike that he is deserving of the starting nod. And for now, Blazers fans have one more supremely gifted prospect to dream about.
Here’s to hoping he works out better than the last one.