Bulls

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

608424.png

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.

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

pod.jpg
USA TODAY

Bulls Talk Podcast: Will Kris Dunn build off career night?

On this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast, Mark Schanowski, Kendall Gill, and Kevin Anderson react to a breakout game from Kris Dunn against the Hornets Friday night. They’ll discuss his development and how it impacts rookie Lauri Markkanen. Plus just how long will both the Wolves and Bulls be judged on the Jimmy Butler trade? Is Dwight Howard a hall of famer? And a new era in Philly with Simmons and Embiid. That and more on this edition of the Bulls Talk podcast.

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Observations from Bulls-Hornets: Kris Dunn, a sigh of relief and hack-a-who?

Kris Dunn did it: You can’t play that position without an edge, without some form of “basketball killer” in you. Kris Dunn showed at the very least, he has that in his DNA in his best game as a Bull with a career-high 22 points, seven assists and five rebounds.

Leave it to Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg to point out a forgotten stat: one turnover in 26 minutes.

“That’s the biggest thing I’m proud of,” Dunn said. “Everyone knows I’ve had a lot of careless turnovers in the season. It’s one thing I’ll take credit for.”

Dunn scored 13 with six assists in the fourth quarter alone as the Bulls outscored the Hornets 40-28 for the comeback victory. More than anything, it was his competitive spirit and aggressiveness that stood out. Kemba Walker stood across the way and gave Dunn—and the Bulls—every bit of 47 points.

“He tested my conditioning, for sure,” Dunn admitted. “He’s a great player. He’s been in the league for so long. It was good to go out there and compete with him.”

It could’ve went a different way had Walker not been bothered by Lauri Markkanen’s challenge at the rim, blowing a layup that would’ve given the Hornets the lead back with seconds remaining but he missed it and the narrative changed at least for a night.

And when teams are talking about learning experiences, it’s good to have them in a win every now and again. Markkanen’s challenge at the rim followed by his closing free throws right after, along with a quietly effective 16 points and seven rebounds, proved huge on this night.

Dunn finally having a confidence booster was imperative.

Dunn scored but it wasn’t an easy 20 or a smooth 20. It was an attacking 20, a necessary 20. He did hit some elbow jumpers, especially in the fourth as the defense laid off him.

But his biggest basket was a slithering drive to the rim for a layup with 2:24 left, because he attacked and was under control.

“That’s huge growth for Kris,” Hoiberg said. “He made the right play darn near every time he had the ball in his hands. Rose up with confidence, knocked down huge shots. Defensively got them going, got steals.”

What a relief: Nobody wanted to say it, but it bore out on the floor, the sheer desperation the Bulls played with.

Coming in with a five-game losing streak and headed out west to for four games in the next week, they were staring in the face of a possible double-digit losing streak to end November.

Confidence was sparse after three bad losses, and it’s a dangerous time for a team that will struggle to win games all season.

The United Center crowd got into it, particularly late when the Bulls began climbing back into contention to start the fourth quarter. The fans wanted this win too, even with the eyes being on a larger prize coming in mid-2018.

The relief was written all over Hoiberg’s usually-stress ridden face and he even cracked a couple jokes that weren’t aimed in his direction, as self-deprecation is normally his escape of choice.

“It is important but I asked the guys: is it hard to play with that type of effort? When you play with that type of energy and effort and swagger, it’s fun,” Hoiberg said. “When you play low energy and hang your head, it’s a drag. It’s hard to play at this level with that mentality.”

Starting change: Justin Holiday returned after his quick leave with his wife delivering a baby girl recently and his game-high 27 points showed he missed the Bulls as much as they missed his shooting, hitting four triples and going 10 for 15 from the field.

“Guys were serious about getting their jobs done,” Holiday said. “It was a lot of energy, a lot of energy, competitiveness. That’s how we have to play every night for our team to do well.”

Denzel Valentine, although he didn’t want to say it, wants to be a starter. Hoiberg chose Quincy Pondexter over him recently and then made the change Friday to insert Valentine for more scoring.

Valentine scored 18 with six assists and five rebounds in 32 minutes of run—and with those two starting as scoring options, the Bulls surpassed that seven-point first-quarter mark really early and scored 26 overall.

He hit a big triple in the fourth with 2:49 left to give the Bulls a 110-109 lead on a set play the Bulls actually executed between Valentine, Dunn as a setup man and Robin Lopez as a screen to pop Valentine open.

If he continues to hit 3-pointers at a 40 percent clip, especially with the way the Bulls have struggled to start games, he’ll have the right to feel he belongs in the first five.

“It’s definitely more confidence,” Valentine said. “You feel you’re an NBA starter, you get to go in and feel it out for a second and bring some energy to start the game.”

He didn’t mince words about starting, with a little honesty saying, “I think it’s huge being a starter.”

When asked if he felt validated by his performance and the result being a high-scoring win, it was just as telling.

“I think I deserve…I think I deserved a starting role,” Valentine said. “At the same time it’s different combinations, different people that need to be on the floor at certain times, so if he feels like I don’t need to start, I won’t start. But I feel very comfortable starting as well.”

Hack-a-Dwight: It could be Hack-a-Dwight, hack-a-Drummond, hack-a-Wilt or Shaq or Charles Shackleford.

The Bulls went to it and Howard went two of four from the line but it took a little rhythm from the Hornets and probably slowed Kemba Walker down just enough before he got cooking in the last 90 seconds and almost pulled a win out of his keister.

But…

I hate it. Get it out of the game completely.