CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In April, long after the regularly-scheduled postseason player meetings, Roy Williams set up a second sitdown with Isaiah Hicks, who recalled on Tuesday wondering about the topic of the forthcoming conversation.
Unbeknownst to Hicks, his head coach had sought out feedback from 21 NBA teams on his draft stock along with Justin Jackson and Kennedy Meeks. When Hicks sat down, Williams slid over paperwork already filled out, save for a signature, that would serve to enter the Oxford, N.C. native into the NBA Draft.
Hicks immediately turned down the offer.
“I was surprised by it,” Williams told reporters at UNC’s media day. "I said, ‘Isaiah, it doesn’t mean we’re running you out. I just want you to sign this paper.’ I had already completed it for him. All he had to do was write his name in, and he didn’t want to do that.”
Hicks smiled when his coach’s comments were relayed, saying, “My focus is to try to get back to that Monday night."
That Monday night, of course, is a reference to UNC's 77-74 loss to Villanova in the national championship game on Apr. 4.
The 6-foot-9, 242-pound senior averaged 8.9 points and 4.6 rebounds in 2015-16. That level of production warranted ACC Sixth Man of the Year honors. Hicks also joined Brice Johnson in becoming the third and fourth Tar Heels in school history to shoot 60 percent from the floor and 75 percent from the free throw line.
Johnson, who elevated his game in his senior season to become a consensus first-team All-American, continues to serve as a role model of sorts.
“I look at Brice and see what he did his last year,” Hicks said. “One more year, get a degree, possibly get a national championship, just stuff like that makes you want to go again.”
In order to make a similar jump in production to Johnson, Hicks has emphasized a similar approach in stressing mental preparation for each and every game.
One aspect of that preparation that will play a critical role in Hicks’s effectiveness in 2016-17 is his ability to cut down on fouls. He averaged seven fouls per 40 minutes as a junior and was encumbered by foul trouble in the majority of UNC’s postseason contests.
“I’m hoping that he is going to make the shift,” Williams said. “I’ve talked to him more often about being the second guy that jumps. Don’t jump first because that’s a pump-fake and now you get in foul trouble. Be the second guy that jumps. I’ve probably emphasized to him and this group more than any group ever is big guys should never make fouls below their waist. Don’t just get silly fouls. And then on the offensive end, don’t make silly illegal screen fouls.”
All of that entails a more cerebral approach to the game.
“Play smarter,” Hicks said. “I’m an aggressive person, but that doesn’t mean I have to be aggressive 24/7.”
Williams indicated he would have preferred to play Hicks more than the 18 minutes per game he averaged last season, pointing to a desire to have his top reserve available in the final minutes. With Johnson now playing in the NBA, Hicks assumes his starting role and will be needed for an additional 10 or more minutes per game.
There are other areas for improvement for Hicks, ranging from rebounding to post moves to defensive positioning. All of which could have been addressed at length in the professional ranks, although that move would have eliminated so much of what Hicks is currently embracing.
“With Isaiah, it’s just that he’s enjoying what he’s doing and he knows he’s going to be alright later on,” Williams said.