All Aboard the Isaiah Hicks Bandwagon

Posted by Mick McDonald on November 7th, 2016

North Carolina never comes out of nowhere. When you’re an historic program with a Hall of Fame coach, why should you? Last year the Tar Heels were ranked first in the preseason AP Top 25 and finished the season a miracle shot away from capturing Roy Williams’ third National Championship. Despite losing All-America forward Brice Johnson and star lead guard Marcus Paige, the Heels are ranked #6 in this preseason’s Top 25 and were picked to finish second in the ACC at Operation Basketball in late October. Point guard Joel Berry was voted to the preseason All-ACC First Team and wing Justin Jackson was named to the Second Team.

With the departure of Brice Johnson, North Carolina will need senior Isaiah Hicks to play a larger role if they want to return to the Final Four. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer)

With the departure of Brice Johnson, North Carolina will need senior Isaiah Hicks to play a larger role if it wants to return to the Final Four. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer)

There is (rightfully) a lot of love for Williams’ squad heading into the season, but the player on the team not getting nearly enough hype is senior forward Isaiah Hicks. Hicks, who was the ACC Sixth Man of the Year last season, was a dominant force in short batches. However, the presence of Johnson at the four prevented him from logging the kind of minutes (45.2% minutes rate) that would have facilitated bigger numbers (8.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG). With Johnson no longer around, Hicks figures to become a key piece to a North Carolina team looking to get back to the Final Four and finish the job. Somewhat surprisingly, Hicks was not chosen for the All-ACC First or Second Team at Operation Basketball. That omission may look silly come March.

There are a few reasons to think Hicks’ senior season could be a breakthrough year. While his per-game stats were rather pedestrian last season, his per-40 minutes numbers tell the story of great effectiveness (19.8 points and 10.2 rebounds per 40 minutes). For the sake of comparison, Indiana forward Thomas Bryant, who has been mentioned by numerous national outlets as a possible First-Team All-American, averaged 21.0 points and 10.2 rebounds per 40 minutes last year. Hicks’ numbers have also steadily improved over time. In the last three years, his effective field goal percentage rose from 41.7 percent to 61.4 percent and his free throw percentage increased from 57.9 percent to 75.6 percent. That stellar conversion rate was identical to what Johnson shot as he put together a First Team All-American season. Hicks has also significantly improved his rebounding numbers (from 6.1 percent to 12.5 percent offensive rebounding rate, and 9.2 percent to 15.6 percent defensive rebounding rate) since his freshman season.

After last seasons rise to superstardom, many people have forgotten what a “disappointment” Johnson had been to that point in his career — for example, his junior season statistics (12.9 PPG, 7.8 RPG) were good but not great. Hicks could be in line for a similar leap this season given the talent returning around him and an expanded role in the offense. The one caveat that could derail a breakout season back is foul trouble. Hicks averaged three fouls per game last season despite playing just 18.1 minutes per contest, occasionally driving Williams crazy by picking up a pair of silly fouls within mere minutes of each other. It’s without question something he will need to improve upon this season if he hopes to become one of the elite big men in college basketball. Hicks may not appear on any preseason All-American or All-ACC lists right now, but don’t be surprised if we are talking about him next March as a key factor in the Tar Heels’ drive to avenge their heart-breaking National Championship loss from a year ago.

Mick McDonald (70 Posts)

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