Unstoppable and aggressive.
Those were the terms used by sophomore wings Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson to describe the play of junior forward Isaiah Hicks so far this season.
Although he wasn’t totally unstoppable in the No. 7 North Carolina men's basketball team's 80-69 victory over Clemson on Wednesday night, Hicks proved to be more than a handful for the Tigers.
The junior scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and distributed two assists — one of which led to a fast-break slam dunk by senior guard Marcus Paige.
On the season, Hicks leads the Tar Heels (12-2, 1-0 ACC) in field goal percentage, shooting 69 percent. And in the game versus Clemson (7-6, 0-1 ACC), Hicks made five shots and missed only one basket.
“He’s really been consistent the entire year,” Coach Roy Williams said. “He’s been consistent since the first game of the year. He’s shooting the ball well and defensive grades have been good. Last year, he really took giant strides defensively, and I think he’s continued that.”
Entering Wednesday’s contest, Hicks averaged 17.8 minutes per game. But due to the absence of junior forward Kennedy Meeks (bruised knee) and senior Brice Johnson's foul trouble, Hicks saw his game action increase to 24 minutes against Clemson.
With Johnson on the bench, Williams opted to play a smaller lineup in certain stretches. The strategy pushed Hicks to the center position, but the lineup shift didn’t bother Hicks’ play. In his minutes as the tallest player on the floor, Hicks made two jumpers and one free throw.
“I was very comfortable,” he said. “We already go through those situations in practice. Coach (Williams) will always sub for somebody different like that and go little. We work through it.”
Hicks has now scored in double figures in six consecutive games. Before the 2015-16 season, his longest streak was just two games.
“I’m just doing the same things,” he said. “I’m staying aggressive and doing everything I can to help the team out. Just me being out there and being aggressive just opens so many opportunities for everybody and for myself.”
Among those who benefitted from Hicks' aggressive play was Pinson, who scored 13 points without missing a single field goal.
When Hicks is under control, Pinson said it is very difficult to keep him from scoring, especially when close to the basket.
“He’s just dominating everybody,” Pinson said. “He’s dominating everybody in the paint. He’s just playing at a high level.”
Jackson said that when Hicks has the ball, the junior forward is always looking to score a basket. And with an unknown timetable for Meeks’ return, that level of assertiveness could prove to be vital as the Tar Heels go deeper into conference play.
“He’s being aggressive,” Jackson said. “When he gets looks, he goes and scores like we know he can. I mean, we see it all the time in practice. He’s pretty much unstoppable in practice. He’s a great passer, as well.
“But when he gets the ball down on the block, it’s hard to stop him.”
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