Zach Lowe of Grantland.com offers his thoughts on Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard's Rookie of the Year chances and forward/center J.J. Hickson's Most Improved Player prospects.
Lowe tabs Lillard ahead of Charlotte Bobcats wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Lillard has taken an immediate leadership role on a so-so team and embraced the heavy burden that comes with it, while Kidd-Gilchrist plays about 10 fewer minutes per game as a secondary do-everything guy on a terrible team with no expectations. Lillard has scored more often, hit a couple of high-profile clutch shots (including a dagger in New York on Tuesday), used a significantly larger portion of his team's possessions than MKG has in Charlotte, and generally looked the part of an above-average NBA starting point guard.
But, my god, has Lillard been awful defensively. Just about any metric available ranks Lillard among the half-dozen or so worst defenders in the league, an assessment that jibes with both the eye test and evaluations from personnel folks of all stripes. Lillard's head-to-head assignments have shot a whopping 49 percent on isolation plays, per Synergy Sports, and Lillard has been absolutely lost dealing with screens both on and off the ball. His trouble negotiating picks has left him way behind all kinds of plays, forcing the rest of the Blazers defense into uncomfortable contortions to compensate. Portland, a bad defensive team to begin with, has allowed about two more points per 100 possessions when Lillard plays, and its starting lineup - one of the only playable groups on a very thin team - has coughed up points at a rate that would rank 29th overall, per NBA.com. Lillard has been a bit better defensively in recent weeks, but he's still a huge part of that.
Hickson is No. 2 behind Brooklyn Nets forward Andray Blatche.
Hickson is another guy who was close to falling out of relevancy before reinventing himself as a rebounding machine and in-close finisher with the Blazers. He's outworking guys under the boards, scoring mostly off cuts and rolls to the rim, and dialing back the mid-range attempts. Turns out, that's a good idea; he's shooting a sizzling 30-of-55 on shots from outside 10 feet, thanks mostly to shooting only the very best ones, according to NBA.com. He's overmatched guarding centers, and fast-paced NBA team defense just doesn't come naturally to him. But he's rebuilt himself as a very useful rotation player. He'll be a free agent after this season, and he's earned a raise.
Lillard won his second consecutive Rookie of the Month award this week.
Rob Mahoney at SI.com also tabbed Hickson as one of the NBA's most improved this week.
-- Ben Golliver | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter