CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- It was paradise where Isaiah Hicks first flashed his collegiate post potential, in a local Bahamian gymnasium on the outskirts of Nassau.
The 6-foot-9, 235-pound forward spent his freshman season playing out of position by necessity due to limited perimeter bodies on North Carolina’s roster. That changed ahead of the 2014-15 season as Hicks transitioned back to his natural position at the 4-spot, and he showcased his ability by leading UNC in scoring in a pair of preseason exhibition games in the Caribbean. Those performances, however, served to only whet the appetite of a Tar Heel fan base hoping for a dynamic and viable third option in the post as he averaged 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds in 14.8 minutes per game last season.
Hicks seemingly possesses the best blend of athleticism and power in the Tar Heel frontcourt, although inconsistency and inexperience has limited his production to date. That being said, there is plenty of reason for optimism. He’s learning the intricacies of what Roy Williams demands defensively, as evidenced by winning UNC’s defensive player of the game award 16 times. Hicks also scored efficiently in the post, ranking third on the team in field goal percentage (54.4) last season while shooting 71.4 percent in UNC’s six postseason games. Those efforts resulted in the Oxford, N.C. product being a co-recipient of the coaching staff’s most improved player award. How quickly Hicks transitions from a potential player to a productive player will determine the significance of his role in 2015-16.
By Eric Montross
I absolutely love Isaiah, and I think there is so much upside to this young man. We haven't really seen what he's capable of doing. He has displayed the ability to slash, to get his shot off, and to explode to the basket. He has as big a frame as anyone in the frontcourt, and he's as athletic as anyone and stronger than anyone else. I look at what he brings, and I believe we have seen glimpses. I am, for one, chomping at the bit to see what he can do with more minutes on the court. He will certainly vie for a lot more playing time as a junior.
This fella has the ability to play with an incredible level of intensity, and there is a lot of ability there that has yet to be discovered. He started driving to the basket last year, making some defensive stops. He's still on the 'very young' side of things, but his potential is limitless.
By Rob Harrington
Will this be the year Hicks fully breaks out? The former McDonald’s All-American has been behind schedule offensively. That said, the 2014-15 campaign was his first playing at power forward, and he’s behind potential all-conference senior Brice Johnson. Moreover, Hicks has become a more powerful player over the past two years and always seems to be a slight alteration here or there from becoming a consistent scorer. As it is, he shot 54 percent from the field last season. To earn major minutes, he’ll need to pick up his rebounding and, to the extent possible, improve his hands.
Xs & Os INSIDER
By Tyler Brooks
Hicks is a great schematic fit on both ends of the floor in light of his versatility. He has the length to bother opposing bigs on the block while also possessing the agility to sufficiently defend stretch 4s. His quick responsiveness will allow him flourish in UNC’s hedge-and-recover, help-and-recover style of defensive play. He must learn to defend without fouling, given Carolina emphasis on statistical points-per-possession analysis. Yet, unlike his post counterparts, Hicks’s excessive fouling is the result of over-aggressiveness rather than poor fundamentals and lazy positioning. It’s a more excusable and rectifiable problem. With his speed and motor, look for Hicks to pressure the defense vertically on Carolina’s primary break. He’s most dangerous on the offensive glass in the half-court (an emphasis of Roy Williams basketball), given his ball-hawking attitude, bounce, and quickness off the floor.
By Adrian Atkinson
The good news surrounding Hicks’s ability to score is that he loves to attack the rim and finish above it. As both a freshman and sophomore, a full 20% of his FGAs were dunks. The bad news about Hicks’s ability to score, at least through two years, has been (virtually) everything else. Last year, he made only 55% of his non-dunk attempts (lay-ups) at the rim; by comparison, Meeks made 66% of such shots, and Johnson made 64%. And, on non-close FGAs, Hicks’s FG% dropped the whole way to 34.7% (26-75). Still, both of those numbers are up from his first-year levels (50% on layups, 21% on non-close attempts). Another leap in non-dunk efficiency will make Hicks a viable scoring weapon off the bench. Add in an improvement at the free throw line (due to his attacking nature, getting there frequently has never been a problem), and Hicks could be among the most efficient bench bigs in the nation.
To really start commanding more minutes, however, Hicks must make big strides on the defensive glass. His DR% of 10.5 last year was the second-worst among Williams-era post players (only Travis Wear’s 10.3% in 2010 was lower). After moonlighting as a wing as a freshman, a second year as a pure post player should lead to some improvements on the defensive backboards.
Additionally, the Hicks-Johnson frontcourt combo must make a huge defensive jump in order for Hicks’s minutes to appreciably increase. That combo allowed an appalling DRtg of 139.1 in 87 minutes last season.
“You saw improvement from him last year and you would expect to see the same thing coming back this year. He’s athletic and has all the tools to be effective. He probably needs to be a little more aggressive with what they do to have more impact on their team.” – ACC Coach
“He’s a really good athlete that runs the floor very well. He’s a good finisher but he’s still figuring out who he is though. He’s not a great back to the basket scorer, he’s more of a energy, hustle and finish off of drop-offs type guy.” – ACC Coach
“Defensively he can protect the basket because he’s long, but strength wise he might be there more physically than mentally, as you kind of go through his body a little bit.” – ACC Coach
“The training wheels are off this year because this is the year where he needs to leave a mark. It was wise to give him a pass as a freshman. You saw him improve as a sophomore. At some point he has to be able to demonstrate he can play at a higher level and have a prominent role. ” – NBA Scout
“He’s the most intriguing of their post prospects because he has abilities as an offensive rebounder, there is something there with his shooting and he’s a good athlete. He has the most raw materials to work with of their bigs but he’s the farthest away from realizing his potential.” – NBA Scout
“If he accepts where he is in the rotation, then his stock as a prospect takes a big dip. If he comes out and begins to assert himself as a player, that’s the only way for you to start believing in him. ” – NBA Scout
“He’s obviously the least heralded of their three bigs, but we’ll go in with an open mind and see if he’s made improvements. He needs to lead with his motor and define who he is. The key for him is to demonstrate significant improvement to where you can start seeing him realizing the potential.” – NBA Scout
“Not seen enough at the college level to become familiar with his game and abilities. We know he’s regarded as an athlete, but I need to see more. Because of his pedigree he’ll be on everyone’s early watch list, it’s just a matter of what kind of season UNC has and how they have grown. He needs to get opportunities and if he gets them he needs to start showing his skillset.” – NBA Scout
(J.B. Cissell, Evan Daniels, Sherrell McMillan, Jack Morton, Ben Sherman contributed to this feature.)