J.J. Hickson’s athleticism and potential made him a budding NBA star. His inconsistency made him maddening and expendable.
On Thursday, the Cleveland Cavaliers decided it was time to move on without him.
Clearing out a logjam at power forward, they traded the enigmatic Hickson to the Sacramento Kings for forward Omri Casspi and a future first-round pick.
Hickson spent three mostly productive seasons in Cleveland, but his days were numbered when the club drafted Texas forward Tristan Thompson with the No. 4 overall pick last week. Hickson was part of the Cavs’ core when they won more than 60 regular-season games in consecutive seasons and pushed deep into the playoffs.
And although he may have been Cleveland’s most talented player, a tendency to disappear in games and an overall lack of intensity — especially rebounding — frustrated Cavaliers coach Byron Scott last season. Scott was hard and demanded more of Hickson, who finally picked up his game and averaged 13.8 points and 8.7 rebounds.
But with Thompson, Antawn Jamison and Samardo Samuels at power forward, someone had to go and it was Hickson, drafted by the Cavs with the No. 19 overall pick in 2008.
”I’m kind of glad it’s over with so my name is not involved in so many trade rumors,” Hickson said. ”I think the Kings did a good job in picking up a young, athletic big that is going to give his all and give it 110 percent.”
The Cavs were also seeking a young, wing player to pair with Thompson and No. 1 overall pick Kyrie Irving and they believe they’ve gotten one in the 23-year-old Casspi, a player they considered drafting when he first made himself available several years ago.
”We like Casspi,” said Cavs general manager Chris Grant, who wouldn’t say if he expects Casspi to start immediately. ”He’s a tough, athletic, 6-foot-9 kid. He’s got a nastiness and fight about him.”
Grant was quick to point out that Casspi, who played two seasons with the Kings, made 47 percent of his 3-point tries from the corner, another weapon for Scott and a target for Irving.
”It gives us a chance to give the guys room to grow on the court together and gives our roster more balance financially moving forward,” Grant said. ”I felt that, where our team is, and where it’s headed, that this was the right move for our franchise.”
Casspi became the first Israeli ever to play in the NBA when he was drafted by Sacramento 23rd overall in 2009. The designation came with as much fanfare as it did pressure to succeed from a country that loves basketball. He started 27 games for the Kings, but his minutes were limited playing behind promising youngsters DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson and Donte Green.
Casspi was excited about coming to Cleveland to play for Scott.
”I know he’s a tough coach who likes tough players,” he said on a teleconference from Los Angeles. ”That’s good for me.”
He also wondered what Grant meant about him being ”nasty.”
”Sometimes I play hard,” he said with a laugh, ”and sometimes I might play too hard.”
The Cavaliers said the first-round pick they obtained is lottery protected in 2012 (Nos. 1-14). The pick is then protected in 2013 (1-13), 2014 (1-12) and 2015-2017 (1-10). If the pick is not conveyed by 2017, then Sacramento will convey its own 2017 second-round pick to the Cavaliers.
Hickson will join a Kings team undergoing change while dealing with an uncertain future.
On the verge of relocating earlier this year to Anaheim, Calif., the Kings need to build momentum with a strong showing this season for a new arena in Sacramento. NBA Commissioner David Stern and Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof have all but guaranteed the franchise will relocate if the city doesn’t approve to plan to help finance a new arena by March 1, which is usually the deadline for teams to file for relocation for the following season.
The team caused a stir on draft night by acquiring Brigham Young’s Jimmer Fredette, the high-scoring, highly debated guard whose addition has sparked some interest. The Kings intend to pair Fredette in the backcourt with Tyreke Evans, the league’s top rookie in 2009-10.
Hickson will certainly improve Sacramento’s frontcourt. He can play forward or center.
”This is a chance to acquire a young player that has already proven himself to a pretty decent level in the league and someone who can strengthen our roster,” Kings GM Geoff Petrie said, adding he had trade talks with the Cavs before and during the draft. ”There is still a lot of upside there. A lot of the players taken in the draft a week ago are not that much younger than J.J. and he has had three years in the league and he was getting more productive each year.”
Kings coach Paul Westphal is excited about the Hickson-Cousins-Thompson trio.
”He is a really good fit,” Westphal said. ”All three of those players can play a little bit (of) center and power forward. It gives us a very solid rotation. (Hickson) has shown versatility and ability to fit in. I don’t think that you necessarily have to run every play for him to have him be effective. But at the same time, he can be effective if you run plays for him.
”He’s somebody that we are getting at a real good time in his career. He’s already shown a track record of success.”