Most Improved Player: A Case For J.J. Hickson Over James Harden

jj hickson

J.J. Hickson’s latest monster game was a break from the mold. In the Trail Blazers’ win over the Chicago Bulls Thursday night, he didn’t record a double-double for only the 29th time this season. But what he did do was set a career high for rebounds with 21.

Hickson is the eighth-leading rebounder in the NBA. He’s pulling down 10.7 a night. He ranks sixth in field goal percentage at .563. Only four players have tallied more than Hickson’s 37 double-doubles this season: David Lee, Al Horford, Dwight Howard and Zach Randolph. Of those four, only Horford wasn’t an All-Star this season.

J.J. Hickson. The same guy Portland snatched up off the waiver wire last year.

Yet somehow, this guy who is putting up 13-plus points and 10-plus rebounds night-in and night-out is being completely ignored in the discussion for the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Uh, ’scuse me?

His scoring and rebounding are both up by more than 50 percent from a season ago, when he averaged 8.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game. His field goal percentage is up an insane amount. Last season he made .467 percent of his shots. This year he’s shooting .563. That’s a 10-percent increase.

But not even a mention of Hickson in the race for the MIP.

Instead everyone is drooling over James Harden. The same James Harden who helped the United States win an Olympic gold medal this summer.

Sure, Harden’s numbers are up significantly. He’s scoring nearly 10 more points per game, going from 16.8 to 26.3. He’s upped his assists too, from 3.7 to 5.9.

Clearly his transition from third fiddle to main man is a big part of that. But if you look deeper into the numbers, you’ll see he’s making fewer of his shots (.449 from the field this year compared to .491 last year; .374 this year from 3-point range compared to .390) and jacking up significantly more of them.

In 62 games last season, he put up 629 shots – just about 10 per game. This year he’s hoisted 1,125 through 66 games — a staggering 17-plus shots per game.

If you compare Hickson’s improved offensive efficiency with Harden’s, Hickson comes out on top: Harden has increased his per-game scoring by .565 percent by taking seven more shots per game; Hickson’s scoring is up .559 percent and he’s taking just two more shots per game.

Harden was a bona fide star-in-the-making in Oklahoma City, but was in a situation where there weren’t enough shots to go around. Hickson, on the other hand, was still somewhat of a question mark entering this season after his partial campaign last year. However he maintained a blue collar approach and crashed the boards harder than just about anyone in the league. As he continued to convert offensive rebounds into second-chance points, coach Terry Stotts started running plays to further involve Hickson in the offense.

Hickson’s increased usage came by earning it within the framework of the team; Harden’s came by going to a team without a star. For Harden, it was more about a change of scenery than any actual improvement to his game. His selection to the Olympic team shows he was a great player at the end of last season.

Hickson being waived – by the Kings no less! – showed he was not valued. Portland took a chance on him. He has rewarded the Blazers by flourishing into a legitimate threat in the frontcourt and becoming a perfect complement to star LaMarcus Aldridge.

Which one of the two has actually improved the most?

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