Isaiah Hicks didn’t have much of a decision to make when North Carolina’s season ended last April because he knew then he’d be back for his senior season. Maybe he’d always known, though Hicks can’t be sure. Sometimes he still seems surprised this is all happening to him.
He had the opportunity, though. Last April, at the end of his junior season at North Carolina, Hicks could have taken advantage of his emergence – he’d realize some of his vast potential, at last, and earned the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year Award – and decided to enter the NBA draft.
But not only did Hicks not decide to enter the draft. He decided not to even go through the pre-draft process now available to college players, the one that allows them to go through the NBA draft combine and receive feedback from the NBA after working out with teams.
Roy Williams, the UNC coach, thought that Hicks would at least do that much. Allen Mitchell, Hicks’ older brother and confidant, encouraged Hicks to go through the draft process, even if he ultimately knew he was staying in school.
But why bother, Hicks thought. He said he focused his mind on one thought: “One more shot.” The thought has played over and over, especially given the way last season ended for Hicks and the Tar Heels – that agonizing last-second loss against Villanova in the national championship game.
“This is my last year,” Hicks, the Tar Heels 6-9 forward, said not long ago. “Just being in the Final Four, I want to go back, one more time, to see: ‘Can we get this?’”
Hicks came back for a variety of reasons. To try to help lead UNC back to the Final Four, back to the final Monday night of the season, for one. He came back to play in games like the one the Tar Heels have on Saturday against Kentucky in Las Vegas in the CBS Sports Classic.
Mostly he came back because he simply didn’t want to leave. Growing up in small-town Oxford, this was the dream for Hicks – playing at North Carolina, wearing the uniform, running out of the tunnel at the Smith Center. All the things kids think about when they’re on the playground fantasizing about an improbable future.
When Hicks talks about it, he doesn’t sound like someone who developed into one of the top prospects in the state during his years at Webb High in Oxford. He sounds humbled to be a member of the team – let alone one of its most important components and, after three years, a full-time starter at last.
“It’s just a blessing to be here,” Hicks said, in his usual quiet tone, before the start of a practice days before the start of the season. He was trying to put into words what had led him to UNC, and what had led him to remain for his senior season.
He kept coming back to that vision he never quite thought would ever come true. What did the dream look like, for Hicks?
“Honestly,” he said, “just playing college basketball for UNC.”
Williams, the UNC coach, often laments what he has come to call the “bus stop” nature of college basketball. Some of the best high school players treat it, in his mind, as an inconvenience – a forced means to an end on their way to the NBA draft.
For many, Williams has said, playing at UNC – or Duke, or Kansas, or Kentucky, for that matter – doesn’t carry the same cachet as it did years ago, during an era that’s decades gone and likely never coming back. Hicks, then, is a kind of anomaly: the highly-rated prospect who has embraced playing in college.
Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, Hicks’ former teammates at UNC, did the same. Neither of them, though, were thought to be among the top 15 to 20 prospects in their high school class, the way Hicks was.
According to the composite recruiting rankings at 247sports.com, Hicks was the 16th-best high school prospect in the class of 2013. All but one of the 15 players ranked ahead of him left college early to pursue a professional career.
How long has Hicks been around? Consider that he arrived at UNC the same year that Jabari Parker arrived at Duke. Parker is now in this third season with the Milwaukee Bucks, while Hicks is still in school, not minding it in the least.
The contrast will be especially evident on Saturday. The Tar Heels will be playing against Kentucky and its usual rotating cast of freshmen who aren’t likely long for college. This season that group includes De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, who might just comprise the best (or at least the most talented) backcourt in the country.
And then on other side there’s Hicks. He was a McDonald’s All-American once, too, though it’s been a while. Before the season began, Williams expressed surprise that Hicks didn’t at least think about coming out of school. Hicks, though, made up his mind the night UNC lost against Villanova.
He was back at the team hotel after that defeat, in the game room, trying to process what had just transpired. Paige was there, said Mitchell, Hicks’ brother, and so were Justin Jackson and a few other players. Hicks occupied himself with some ping-pong, lost in the rhythm of the back and forth.
During a break he approached his brother, and Mitchell remembers well Hicks’ words: “He was like, ‘We’ll be back,’” Mitchell, 30, said, reciting what Hicks told him.
“I think it motivated him a lot. He got right there, and then had one shot,” Mitchell said during a phone interview, the words trailing off. “That motivated him, and this being his senior year, and knowing that he can take the reins his senior year – it’s kind of big deal, actually.”
It’s the sort of stuff Hicks built his childhood fantasies around – the ending to last season notwithstanding. Hicks took it especially hard. He’ll forever be linked with Kris Jenkins, whose shot as time expired gave Villanova a stunning national championship.
In replays of Jenkins’ shot, and in pictures capturing the moment, Hicks is the only UNC player with a chance of disrupting what was already in motion. He’s moving toward Jenkins, his hand outstretched, high … but it’s too late.
Hicks took the blame afterward, even though Jenkins was Johnson’s defensive responsibility. Hicks apologized to his teammates and Williams, dismissing Hicks’ role in the breakdown, publicly absolved him not long after the Tar Heels returned from Houston.
“Obviously, every player on the court will feel like it’s their fault,” Hicks said. “Especially if he’s close to the man. Even though I wasn’t guarding him, I was still close. But honestly, I don’t think I bothered the shot. Because of how much space he had. You know, he shot it deep. …
“Of course it hurt but still, that’s just more motivation for me.”
For Hicks, the words “last year” carry multiple meanings. There’s last year, the pain of how it ended and the positive of how he played most of the season. And then there’s his last year in college, his time at UNC slowly ending. When it began, he’d go back home to Oxford just about every weekend he could, homesick.
Hicks said Steve Robinson, one of UNC’s assistant coaches, used to tease him about that, saying, “You know, why don’t you just stay here for a while?” Now Hicks doesn’t want to leave.
He began his senior season, in some ways, where he left, averaging about 14.5 points and 5.5 rebounds during UNC’s first seven games. Since, his habit for fouling has returned and his production has slipped. Recently Williams hosted a meeting with Hicks, trying to get him back on track.
“All I need Isaiah to do is do the same dadgum thing he did last year, except he’s going to have more opportunities because he’s playing more minutes,” Williams said. “I don’t need him to do anything else … just do the same dadgum thing he did last year, and do it a little bit better.”
Hicks came back to UNC because he saw no reason to leave but he also returned for games like these, against Kentucky, on this kind of national stage. Kentucky will be led, as usual, by freshmen who in a few months could be on their way to the next thing. Then there’s Hicks, whose next thing is here in front of him.
He saw what Johnson did a season ago, developing into an All-American in his final year.
“Took him all his years here to come back, blossom into a great player that he was,” Hicks said. “Some players are different. I guess, me, I can be the same.”
In some ways, Johnson’s emergence began with UNC’s 89-76 victory against UCLA in this same event, the CBS Sports Classic. Now Hicks has the same stage, a similar opportunity and no shortage of motivation.