FORT MYERS — When you’re 6 feet, 10 inches tall, you don’t need to embellish the truth about your height.
“I’m one of the more honest 6-10 guys in the league,” said Nate Hicks, a former Arnold standout who has emerged as one of the premier rim protectors in the Atlantic Sun Conference as a reserve center for Florida Gulf Coast University. “There’s quite a few listed as the same height and maybe half an inch on me.
“I’ve just stayed with my high school height and been more honest.”
Hicks, a fourth-year junior, ranked fourth in the Atlantic Sun with 1.2 blocks per game while averaging 15 minutes of playing time. He swatted eight shots against Eckerd College early this season, setting a new program record at FGCU. He blocked two shots or more in nine other games.
“It’s been a specialty of mine since high school mainly because I’m much taller and longer than the people I usually play against,” Hicks said. “It’s something I work on. Some of it is natural, some of it is timing. If I’m able to move my feet and stay down when they give a pump fake and jump at the right time, I have a chance to get up there and block it. I take pride on the defensive end especially.”
The general assumption among basketball fans is that being taller is an asset, which is true to a certain degree. Seven-footers thrive in the NBA, for instance, because they often are matched up against players of similar or slightly lesser height.
At the college level, however, height can become a hindrance. Centers often face players half a foot shorter, athletes who prefer to face the basket, draw big men away from the lane and then use their quickness to attack off the dribble. Hicks said that is the biggest challenge he faces on the defensive end of the floor.
“Absolutely,” he said. “Every day the game is about trying to get an advantage. Mine is my height, and I try to shoot over smaller players. But they have an advantage, too. We have a few players on the team, like Chase Fieler, who is about two inches shorter but is as skilled as they come and is skilled off the bounce.
“Every team has someone like that. It’s tough. I’ve had to work on my foot speed a lot as I’ve progressed through the game. I do the best I can with what I’ve got. My length has gotten me where I am.”
Hicks, 22, still is improving on the offensive end. He has averaged 4.1 points a game this year, and his .590 shooting percentage rates second-best on the team. He acknowledged that his offensive repertoire largely is limited to putbacks and hooks in the lane.
“It’s no secret I’ve developed pretty much a left shoulder post-up game,” he said. “I do a lot of right-handed hooks. That’s a good portion of my offense. I’m still working on my left hand for sure. But when you’re as tall as I am, I’m pretty able to get off a right-handed hook at will.
“It is easier to defend against when you’re so left-shoulder dominant like I am. We have a really good backcourt at FGCU when it comes to getting in the lane, drop-offs and alley-oops. My offense really has been a function of my teammates. Every big wants to play in a system with guards like we have here.
“I’ve worked a lot on trying to extend my range. I’m not the quickest guy around, and I’m not taking it to the rim on a regular basis. We do need perimeter shooting at times, though, and I’ve shown flashes of it in practice. I haven’t really brought it out in a game, though, because it’s not as necessary. Sometimes it’s just not the shot you want as a big man. Really, it comes in most if we end up needing a shot late in the shot clock.”
Upon the completion of his high school career, Hicks was recruited to play at Tulane University in New Orleans. Tulane replaced its coach, however, and Hicks was looking for a new college home before he had officially put on a Green Wave uniform. That took him to Georgia Tech for two years, but another coaching change spurred Hicks’ decision to transfer.
Hicks arrived at FGCU last year and redshirted as the Eagles shocked the college basketball world as a 15-seed in last year’s NCAA tournament and advanced to the Sweet 16. Andy Enfield resigned as coach to take a job at Southern Cal, however, and FGCU attracted former Kansas assistant Joe Dooley to take over.
“I’ve had four (coaches), officially,” Hicks said. “But if you start the clock at me committing to Tulane, you can go as far as six.”
Hicks described Dooley as a no-nonsense guy who puts the players on the floor who deserve to be there.
“There are no politics involved,” Hicks said. “I had a chance to start several games this year (11 in all), and even after the arrival of Eric McKnight coming back from suspension, I was still given an opportunity after he returned. People can decide for themselves, but Eric was producing a little more. I can’t fault (Dooley). Eric’s numbers have been great.
“We have two really good players at the 5 spot, and we played interchangeably during conference play. (Dooley) has done a good job keeping us both happy.”
FGCU won’t get a chance to repeat last year’s performance at the NCAA tournament. The Eagles fell 68-60 to Mercer in the Atlantic Sun championship game and will settle for a bid in the NIT with a 22-12 record.
“It was quite a letdown,” Hicks said. “It was pretty somber in the locker room, but then it sunk in that we’ve still got games to play. We just had our first practice back, and I’m looking at everyone on the court right now and we’re looking like we’re in a good mood. I’m hoping we can get to Madison Square Garden. We also have a chance to play FSU, which would be great for me because it’s two hours away from home. But you can’t predict what will happen in these things.”
Hicks, an economics major, said he is finishing his final three classes and will graduate in May.
“I like to consider myself a student-athlete and maintain a 3.5 GPA,” Hicks said. “I’m proud of my accomplishments and my work in the classroom and on the court.”