Introducing your starting five…

As the 2011-2012 season was winding down to something that looked like “Who Wants To Be Here Next Year?” auditions, more than anyone else J.J. Hickson set himself apart. Hickson not only became a fan favorite while averaging 15.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game but impressed the front office enough to shuttle him back to PDX with a one-year deal worth $4 million bucks. With not-so-distant memories of Hickson’s March 30 beast mode performance against the Clippers (team-high 29 points and 13 boards), it’s easy to understand why Coach Terry Stotts announced you-know-who in his starting lineup for the Trail Blazers’ first preseason game on Wednesday against the Los Angeles Lakers.

Damian Lillard, Wesley Matthews, Nicolas Batum, LaMarcus Aldridge and … Mr. J.J. Hickson.

“As I said from day one, he’s the incumbent,” Stotts said of Hickson. “He played well last year. I think there is a good feel for him out there. He’s played well in practice. He’s played well and I want to look at him at center first.”

Although Hickson will get the start in Ontario, Calif., Stotts clued the media in that he’ll send rookies Meyers Leonard and Joel Freeland to walk out with the starters for other games.

“J.J. played well last year. The fact that J.J. has played well over the course of last season and this year, he’s getting the first shot. But, it’s not to say that he’s going to start every preseason game. You’ll probably see different lineups out there during the preseason.”

Hickson’s undersized for the 5, that’s for sure. But he’s as active as anybody you’ll see in the paint. The one thing I’ve always admired about his game, and what should make Rip City fall even more in love with Hickson this year, is that ol’ boy just goes. Hard. All the time. Even as a rookie with the Cavs, when he was making 20-year-old mistakes, he still bum rushed the backboard every time a shot went up (which obviously hasn’t stopped), and glued his big body to somebody, anybody for a box out. He’s a nightmare for a big, traditional or undersized, who doesn’t like contact. (Uhh, good job, good effort, Pau.)

This training camp, Hickson has consistently been the last one to leave the practice court, working on post moves and showing the development in his offensive game. Today, Aldridge was the last man to leave. Aldridge stayed behind on the far back court, catching passes as little guy assistant Kaleb Canales, wearing the equivalent to padded Popeye arms, tried to move him off his spot. Never succeeding.

Barton still ailing The Blazers were at full strength for the first half of practice, until rookie Will Barton felt the strain in his hamstring once again. Stotts said Barton pulled himself out of the drills. Essentially, the rook has completed one full day of practice since the start of training camp. There is no timeline for Barton’s return.

“He came in (Sunday, the off day) and got treatment, tried to give it a go today and it was still irritating,” Stotts said. “He aggravated his hamstring, whatever terminology you want to use but that’s what’s bothering him.”

While Barton, who should be a licensed Oregon driver by the end of the day if he remembers how to merge when entering a freeway, remains limited, that truly gives the Blazers 17 players for Wednesday. Just don’t expect to see Stotts rotate all 17 into this first game.

Lillard the Laker fan? Damian Lillard grew up in the Bay Area but as a boy born in 1990, he just missed all those great RUN TMC years. (Poor child was also too young for first-run “Saved By The Bell” episodes, which was the only reason why I woke up every Saturday morning). Still, in spite of these childhood hardships, Lillard still grew up a Warriors fan. But, by then, Golden State basketball was so dismal, it would make children cry. So, let’s revise this: Lillard still grew up as a Warriors fan from the months of October to April. Come May, bye bye, Nellie Ball. Hello, Lake Show.

Sports Fan Rule No. 452 states: “If your team stinks, then you may adopt new loyalties.”

“I was a Warriors fan but when the playoffs came, we didn’t make it. So, I transferred to the Lakers. Shaq and Kobe,” Lillard said. “So, I mean, I was a Warriors fan but that’s who I wanted to win it every year, the Lakers.”

This might not be the PC thing to say in this city and when a reporter said, “uh oh!” at Lillard’s response, the rookie cleaned it up nicely.

“I mean, it’s over now. That’s gone.”

Over and done with. So don’t expect Lillard to ask Kobe to sign his sneakers this Wednesday or get starry-eyed when lining up against the purple and gold.

“I’m sure it’ll be a lot going through my mind,” Lillard said. “Once we tip the ball up and start getting up and down, it’ll be basketball. I might be like, ‘Man! I’m really in the NBA and this is the Lakers,’ but I’m sure it won’t last long.”

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