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  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    Mad Ants forward Stephan Hicks is averaging 13.7 points a game – 6.1 more than last season. He feels he’s improved on defense against bigger and stronger opponents.

  • Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    “A lot of guys here are just willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said Stephan Hicks, who has started every game this season for the 13-5 Mad Ants.
January 06, 2017 1:02 AM

Ants' Hicks improving by muscling up on defense

Justin A. Cohn | The Journal Gazette

Stephan Hicks’ offensive game has taken off in his second professional season with the Mad Ants – he’s averaging 13.7 points, 6.1 more than last season – but he’s more proud of what he’s done at the other end of the court.

Coach Steve Gansey has had Hicks, 6-foot-6, 200 pounds, playing more of a power-forward role after he spent his rookie season as a small forward and guard, and Hicks has done a good job against players bigger and, sometimes, stronger than him.

“I really try to work on all aspects of my game, but I have been focusing a little bit more on the defensive end,” Hicks said.

The Mad Ants (13-5) tip off at 7 p.m. today at Memorial Coliseum against Raptors 905, which is 12-7 and 1½ games back of Fort Wayne for first place in the Central Division.

As if it wasn’t important enough to get some separation in the standings from Raptors 905, which has former Mad Ants Will Sheehey and Bruno Caboclo, it will be Fort Wayne’s last game on its home court before eight straight on the road. The Mad Ants, who have won seven of their last 11, won’t return to the Coliseum until a Feb. 2 game against the Erie BayHawks.

At .722, Fort Wayne has the third-best winning percentage in the D-League, behind only the Los Angeles D-Fenders (.750) and the defending-champion Sioux Falls Skyforce (.737). It’s been impressive considering the Mad Ants use five rookies – Alex Poythress (19.1 points per game), Jordan Loyd (15.5), Nick Zeisloft (8.2), Adam Woodbury (2.5) and E. Victor Nickerson (1.6) – while Rakeem Christmas and Georges Niang have been down from the NBA’s Indiana Pacers for eight combined games. Niang was reassigned to Fort Wayne on Thursday.

“I think our depth is great,” Hicks said. “Guys are ready to play. (Using so many players) has taught us that these guys are ready to play, the guys who hadn’t been playing earlier in the season. It shows that they’re ready and that they’ve been preparing in practice. When they get their name called, they’re ready to go.”

With NBA teams now able to sign players to 10-day contracts, scouts could start taking a closer look at Poythress, Julyan Stone, Travis Leslie or Hicks, who went from averaging 0.6 steals a game last season to 1.2 this season. Hicks, 24, has shown similar improvement in almost every other statistical category, most notably rebounds per game (2.8 to 5.8), free-throw percentage (80.4 to 88.1) and 3-pointers made per game (0.5 to 1.3).

After starring at Cal State Northridge, where he was the Big West’s Freshman of the Year in 2012 and second team all-conference in 2015, averaging 16 points and 5.4 rebounds as a senior, Hicks has played NBA Summer League games with the Orlando Magic and shown versatility with the Mad Ants.

“A lot of guys here are just willing to do whatever it takes to win,” said Hicks, who has started every game this season, as have Poythress and Trey McKinney Jones. “If you’re not playing, and other guys are playing well, you’re (happy for) them until you get your name called.”

The Mad Ants are coming off a 122-115 win Tuesday over the Windy City Bulls, a good response to a 94-92 loss to Westchester.

“It shows us what we’re made of,” Hicks said. “We haven’t had a lot of adversity throughout the season.”

jcohn@jg.net