At this time last year, Isaiah Hicks was the most anticipated arrival in a stacked freshman class for UNC basketball. Following a wretched debut season, Hicks has a lot of catching up to do just to reach the bar set by classmates Nate Britt and Kennedy Meeks, let alone to live up to his billing as a future Tar Heels star.
The 6’8” forward still has ample time to recover from his slow start and prove that he deserved his high school hype. Whether he’s able to follow through on that opportunity will depend heavily on how Roy Williams opts to use him in 2014-15.
Last season, with James Michael McAdoo gobbling up minutes at power forward, Williams attempted to convert Hicks into a small forward with disastrous results. Uncomfortable on the perimeter and lacking the shooting range necessary for spacing the floor in a big lineup, the freshman never gave Williams much reason to put him in the lineup, hence his ugly average of 7.3 minutes per game.
If Williams follows the same course in 2014-15, the results for Hicks will be even less favorable.
The arrival of two elite small forwards in the freshman class, Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, will leave little opportunity and less demand for Hicks’ clumsy attempts to fit a position to which he doesn’t appear suited.
However, the odds are excellent that in McAdoo’s absence, Hicks will get his chance to resume his natural spot at power forward. That alone will be a huge boost for the struggling youngster, but it’s still no guarantee of playing time.
Now that Meeks has carved out a niche for himself at center, it’s entirely possible that Brice Johnson will shift to the 4 on a full-time basis. In that event, Hicks will be left battling Joel James and Jackson Simmons for minutes off the bench.
There won’t be so many of those to go around, and if Williams periodically opts to go small—a realistic option with versatile wings such as Pinson and J.P. Tokoto around—the pickings will get even slimmer.
For Hicks to make a real impact in 2014-15, he’ll need to be given the opportunity to compete for the starting job at PF on an equal footing. With that chance, the younger forward’s immense talent might outweigh Johnson’s proven production and leave both players with major minutes.
Of course, if the veteran winds up as Meeks' backup at center, Hicks will have an easier path to the starting job. He'll still need to perform, but it won't be nearly as steep a hill to climb.
On the other hand, Williams could decide that Johnson has earned a secure place among the starters with his surprising 2013-14 success. In that event, Hicks will almost certainly get lumped in with veteran Simmons and earth-mover James as a role player.
Each member of the trio would be called on for situational duty—with the youngster becoming the designated scorer—but none would get much chance to maintain a rhythm from game to game.
Even as skilled and athletic as Hicks is, that’s not a recipe for a comeback season. If he comes on strong in the Tar Heels’ early practices, and if he gets a shot at unseating Johnson, he has a slim chance of a breakout year. The odds are, though, that the erstwhile prize recruit is headed for another disappointing season on the pine as a sophomore.