College Sports

UNC forward Isaiah Hicks aims to conquer mental game

North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks shoots over Tulane’s Blake Paul on Dec. 16. Hicks, who had six points in 90 seconds against the Green Waves, has been working to build his confidence and be more aggressive.
North Carolina’s Isaiah Hicks shoots over Tulane’s Blake Paul on Dec. 16. Hicks, who had six points in 90 seconds against the Green Waves, has been working to build his confidence and be more aggressive. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Isaiah Hicks has an opportunity now, but it’s one he doesn’t want to spend too much time thinking about. He understands what can happen when he allows his thoughts to take over, when he loses himself somewhere inside of his own mind.

“I try not to think about it,” Hicks, the North Carolina junior forward, said recently of the increased playing time he’ll receive, and the increased opportunities, amid the injury to Kennedy Meeks, a starter for the Tar Heels. “Because it’s putting unnecessary pressure on myself.”

That is something Hicks has done – or had been doing, perhaps, because he hopes the habit is in the past – since he arrived at UNC in 2013. Hicks had been an All-American at Webb High in Oxford, and he was the best prospect in the state in his graduating class.

To this point, though, Hick’s time at UNC hasn’t exactly gone as he might have envisioned. He has had some memorable moments, ones when he has shown his considerable potential, but they have come alongside other times when he has seemed to be missing something.

Confidence, Hicks admits, has been at times a significant part of what he has lacked. Despite what he accomplished in high school, and despite his enviable physical gifts, Hicks has sometimes struggled to believe in himself. In other moments he said he has spent too much time “overthinking situations.”

“Like, ‘What should I do, blah, blah, blah,’ ” Hicks said, mocking some of those intrusive thoughts. “Just over-thinking stuff – unnecessary stuff – instead of just going out there and playing.”

UNC, which on Saturday plays against UCLA in the CBS Sports Classic at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, has been waiting for Hicks to emerge and become the player many believed he’d be when he arrived. And there have been indications lately that suggest that wait is coming to an end.

During the Tar Heels’ 84-82 loss at Texas last weekend, Hicks played an expanded role amid Brice Johnson’s foul trouble. Hicks responded well, at least offensively, and finished with 14 points – eight of those at the free throw line, after Hicks drew fouls with aggressive moves to the basket.

All the coaches talk to me (and say), ‘Stop trying to overthink stuff, you know – be more confident. A lot of times they always say, ‘You don’t know what you can do.’ Because I just take myself out of stuff. So it’s just all about going out there and just playing.

Isaiah Hicks

Then, during UNC’s 96-72 victory against Tulane on Wednesday, Hicks thrived during one stretch in the first half, when, in a span of about 90 seconds, he scored six points – two on an aggressive dunk – and set up a fast-break layup with a steal at mid-court.

Hicks finished with 11 points, the third time in his college career that he has scored in double figures in consecutive games. He has never done that three games in a row. The way coach Roy Williams sees it, Hicks is “getting better” with his confidence.

“He is an extremely gifted young man,” Williams said. “And he’s not a center and he’s not a small forward, you know, he’s sort of stuck in a spot of being able to do some of these things … it’s not an easy niche for him.”

The mental part of the game, though, has been more challenging than anything on the court. In the past, Hicks said, he panicked in some moments. He is guilty, too, he said, of placing “unnecessary pressure” on himself.

Hicks understands how it all might sound. People see him – his size, his physique – and they might assume the game should come easily to him, like it did in high school.

“I mean, I’m 6-8, 235, you know, and I’m athletic, too,” Hicks said with a shy smile. “So the physical aspect is, like, there. It’s just, mentally is the part I’m having (to become) better at.”

And he is, according to Williams and his teammates. During practices, Williams and his assistants constantly have to remind Hicks to “attack, attack, attack,” he said, and he has been.

His opportunities at the free throw line at Texas are proof of that. So is that burst in the first half against Tulane when Hicks scored six points in 90 seconds.

Marcus Paige, the senior guard, began to notice a change in Hicks last summer, during alumni pick-up games with former UNC players who have gone on to the pros. Hicks, Paige said, became “extremely confident” amid the success in those games with former players.

Yet it remains an ongoing battle, the mental game that plays on in Hicks’ mind.

“We always tell him – he’s the one guy on the team we always have to remind to be aggressive,” Paige said. “Take the ball strong. Because when he does, he’s almost unstoppable.”

He was, at times, in the victory against Tulane. Those moments, Hicks said, were examples of him simply playing and not thinking. Or not overthinking, at least.

All the coaches talk to me (and say), ‘Stop trying to overthink stuff, you know – be more confident. A lot of times they always say, ‘You don’t know what you can do.’ Because I just take myself out of stuff. So it’s just all about going out there and just playing.

Isaiah Hicks

UNC’s past two games offer hope for Hicks, and for Williams and his staff, that Hicks has reached and passed something of a turning point. His freshman season was marred by self-doubt and self-destructive nerves, thoughts that didn’t serve him well.

“Every freshman wants to be perfect,” Hicks said. “And I was just trying to be perfect. Can’t do this, can’t mess up. … Make every shot, all that. Just trying to be perfect, and nobody’s perfect.”

Hicks spoke quietly at the memory, sounding a little embarrassed at his old thought process. He has since adopted a new one, and just in time for when UNC will be especially reliant on him during Meeks’ absence.

Meeks will miss an undetermined amount of time while he recovers from a bruised bone in his left knee. UNC is hopeful he might only be out for a couple of weeks. In the meantime, Hicks stands to benefit most from the opportunity.

Physically, Hicks has been ready for a while. Now he’ll have the chance to prove that he has caught up mentally, too.

“All the coaches talk to me (and say), ‘Stop trying to overthink stuff, you know – be more confident,’ ” Hicks said. “A lot of times they always say, ‘You don’t know what you can do.’ Because I just take myself out of stuff. So it’s just all about going out there and just playing.”

That’s Hicks’ primary goal: to block out thoughts of his opportunity with Meeks’ absence. To block out everything, really, that creates what Hicks describes as “unnecessary pressure.”

There have been signs lately that the mental part of Hicks’ game is catching up to the physical part. Signs that he’s putting those self-doubts in the past for good.

“The more he plays and the more success he has he’s just going to get more confident,” Williams said. “And hopefully that will overcome all those doubts that he’s had in the past because I’ve got a great deal of confidence in him, myself.”

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