Bulls

St. Rita's Hicks: State's most underrated player?

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St. Rita's Hicks: State's most underrated player?

Tony Hicks still remembers when St. Rita basketball coach Gary DeCesare coaxed him into a meeting after his freshman year. Hicks was recruited out of McKinley elementary school in South Holland to quarterback the football team at St. Rita. He had only played basketball for a couple of years but admitted that he didn't take the game seriously.

But DeCesare was persuasive. He had seen Hicks play in open gym and, looking at him straight in the eyes, boldly predicted that the youngster could excel in basketball if he had the desire and put in the time in the off-season to sharpen his skills.

"He got me thinking," Hicks said. "That summer I started to get good. I started to like the game a lot more. I wouldn't be where I am if he hadn't talked to me about basketball.

"I felt basketball was more of a challenge. I enjoyed being in the gym and working on my own and imitating my favorite player, Kobe Bryant. I lost interest in football. At times, I wonder how good I could have been in football. But I don't regret it. I quit playing football before my sophomore year."

Football's loss is basketball's gain. Hicks, a 6'2 senior, has emerged as one of the leading student-athletes in the class of 2013. He is committed to Pennsylvania. He has a 3.6 grade-point average on a scale of 4.0 in honors classes, scored 27 on his ACT and ranks No. 60 in a class of 165. And he is averaging 32 points per game.

"He is one of the most underrated players in the state," DeCesare said. "He is a hard worker. He has improved every year. He is as good as anybody in the state. His work ethic separates him from other players."

"Hicks is a very good scorer and an absolute steal for Penn," said recruiting analyst Roy Schmidt of Illinois Prep Bulls-Eye. "He should be All-City this year. He is a great kid as well. He is a scorer, not a point guard, but that is fine."

Hicks took DeCesare's advice and got better...and better. He averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore, 15 as a junior. In his first three games this season, he scored 95 points. He has worked on his ball-handling and shooting, relentlessly. He spent three hours a day, taking 500 shots in the gym around the corner from his house.

"The coach let me know that basketball isn't about what you do on the court but what you do off the court, how you carry yourself," Hicks said. "If you want to be good you can do anything you want to. It all depends on the amount of time you are willing to put in and sacrifice to where you want to go."

Penn was impressed. They recruited Hicks harder than anyone else. In the end, he chose Penn over Loyola, South Florida, Tennessee, Dayton, Ohio, George Mason and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

"They showed me they really wanted me," he said. "I was hesitant at first because I felt it would be too learny and book-smart. But they were down-to-earth and genuine, cool people. They showed up at all my games and showed they really wanted me."

Now that his college decision has been made, Hicks is into concentrating on the 2011-12 season. He is the leader of one of the top teams in the state. The Mustangs are 2-1 after Tuesday's 74-71 loss to unbeaten Marist and have a date this weekend in the Gonzaga Classic in Washington D.C.

Last week, Hicks scored 22 of his 31 points in the second half and had three steals and three assists as St. Rita, despite the absence of two starters, edged De La Salle 66-64 in double overtime.

"It was a great team victory," DeCesare said. "Everybody contributed in their own way. Hicks was our leading scorer but we don't win without our post defense, free throws and offensive rebounding. We can't control everything. We must be prepared. Every game is a big game. As you build a program, you have to be ready to play every night, especially in the Catholic League."

DeCesare was well prepared when he arrived at St. Rita three years ago. A native New Yorker, he grew up in the Bronx. A life-long New York Yankees fan, he has had season tickets for 25 years. Between first base and home plate, not far from Rudy Giuliani and Billy Crystal. Thurman Munson is his hero.

But basketball was his game. He played and coached at St. Raymond's High School and played at Iona College. Later, he joined Jerry Wainwright's staff at Richmond and followed Wainwright to Chicago when he became head coach at DePaul. When Wainwright was fired, DeCesare wasn't sure what to do.

"I was walking home from church with (Fenwick coach) John Quinn and he said a job had opened up at St. Rita," DeCesare recalled. "I looked at the web site, called (athletic director) Mike Zunica, met for three hours at breakfast and got the job.

"High school coaching is the purest form of coaching. In my 17 years at St. Raymond's, I had over 40 kids go to Division I schools. I wanted to do that again. I knew that St. Rita had a lot of potential, a great school, a terrific sports program. I knew it had a history in basketball but it had been overshadowed by other sports."

St. Rita was 14-13 in DeCesare's first year, 12-14 last season. He had promoted several talented sophomores to the varsity and anticipated a successful season. But he lost 6-7 A.J. Avery to a broken wrist on the fifth day of practice. The Mustangs lost seven games by five points or less.

"It was a great learning experience," he said. "How good is this year's team? At full strength, we have a good chance to do well, to compete against anyone. We have a lot of versatility, a lot of guys. We can play big or small and do what we need to do to win, whether it means pressuring opponents or pushing the ball up the court."

At the moment, the Mustangs are without Avery, who is sidelined with the same wrist injury and likely won't return until after the holidays, and 6'2 sophomore guard Dominique Matthews, the team's second leading scorer who also is recovering from a wrist injury and is due to return on Dec. 21.

The healthy ones are Hicks, 5'9 senior point guard Cullen Foulkes, 6'5 sophomore Victor Law, 6'4 freshman Charles Matthews and 6'5 senior Michael Foody. Charles is Dominique's brother.

"I think we can have a 20-plus win season and make a run for the Catholic League and state titles," Hicks said. "It isn't about physical ability but about attitude. We know we can be good. We're taking the game more seriously. We challenge each other in practice."

And Hicks is eager to discard his "underrated" tag. His teammates claim he is one of the quietest players on the team. His parents always remind him that if he does what he is supposed to be doing on the court, people will take notice. If he continues to average 32 points per game, they won't be able to take their eyes off him.

"I feel I have a higher ceiling than what I have shown," he said. "I can play better."

That's a scary thought.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

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USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Projecting the Bulls’ future

In the latest edition of the Bulls Talk Podcast, Mark Schanowski, Will Perdue and Kendall Gill recap the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, look at the continued growth of Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn, and discuss if Bobby Portis is part of the Bulls’ long term future.

They also check in on LeBron James and the new-look Cleveland Cavaliers, discuss whether or not the Golden State Warriors can make another title run and the latest on the status of San Antonio Spurs guard Kawhi Leonard. The guys also discuss how Oklahoma guard Trae Young could look in a Bulls uniform if he’s available for them in the draft.

Listen to the full episode at this link (iOS users can go here) or in the embedded player below. Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts.