Since the end of the 2011-12 season, the North Carolina Tar Heels have lost four starters to the NBA draft and whiffed on Alex Oriakhi. Fortunately for UNC, their 2012 recruiting class includes Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Joel James—all four-star recruits and top-20 players at their respective positions.
It's fun to remember all the great games we saw from Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall. And we can't help but think what could have been in 2012-13 had the three extended their stay in Chapel Hill.
But it's time to press forward and look into the Heels' future. Though there will likely be some growing pains, UNC has an impressive crop of incoming talent—and they sound ready to bring it.
“We’re bringing a good class too. We’ve got Joel James, we got Marcus Paige, we got Brice and myself. We’ve got big shoes to fill, but we’re going to step up to the challenge and really make coach [Roy Williams] happy.”
I must say, I've been very satisfied with what I have seen thus far, so let's take a deeper look into the latest class of Tar Heels.
Knowing how important the point guard is in the run-and-gun system of Roy Williams, incoming freshman Marcus Paige will have some big shoes to fill with Kendall Marshall entering the NBA draft.
But from what I've seen of Paige, he will be ready to step up this November.
Listed at 6'1” and 165 pounds, Paige is probably going to have to put on weight to play at the NBA level, but right now, I'm just worried about what he'll do at UNC.
Paige finished his senior season averaging 28.4 points, 3.5 assists and four rebounds per game. He also knocked down 44 percent of his three-point attempts. In a 49-point performance in a state playoff game, he scored 21 of the team's first 24 points.
Don't expect scoring numbers like that at Carolina, as he will be more focused on distribution, but it's good to know he can.
As the lone returning starter, his high school team relied on him to score more than distribute, so don't look at the 3.5 average and think he can't get it done.
In the 2012 McDonald's All-American Game, he dished out seven dimes—and quite a few were a thing of beauty. Over about a two-minute span in the second half, Paige had a beautiful 35-foot alley-oop to Shabazz Muhammad, followed by a no-look to Grant Jarrett on a fast break and a behind-the-back bounce pass. He also picked off a pass during that time.
For the game, Paige finished with four points, seven assists and just one turnover, one block and one steal over 20 minutes of play. And he seemed to have a better grasp on defense than Marshall did when he entered Chapel Hill—his speed helps here.
Paige is suffering from a stress fracture in his left foot, but he should be healed up and ready to go in 12-16 weeks—and ready to take on the challenge of the ACC.
I'm pretty pleased with what I have seen from Marcus Paige and according to his high school coach Chris Robertson, he has the smarts to step right in, as well:
“He’s just thinking ahead all the time. ‘When do we push? When do we pull back? When do we run a set?’ As he progressed through his career, I didn’t have to say much to him.”
“Marcus is a great floor general who, like the other three young men that we’ve signed, comes from a great family. He’s a straight-A student who comes from a basketball family. His mom was a long-time high school basketball coach, and his older sister plays at Wisconsin. Marcus is the type of player that everyone on the floor likes to play alongside.”
You can also check out this Marcus Paige highlight reel.
I really like the prospects of North Carolina's latest small forward J.P. Tokoto.
Tokoto is an impressive athlete and a very smooth basketball player. All of his motions are fluid, and he just seems to glide around on the court. I've really enjoyed watching this kid play.
His high school numbers won't blow anyone away, but he did average a double-double his senior year. Tokoto averaged 14.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.6 steals per game.
At 6'6” and 180 pounds, Tokoto has decent size at the 3. I'd like to see him add a little more weight in the offseason, but that will come with time.
I was really impressed with Tokoto was during the Jordan Brand Classic on Saturday night. He started out scoring the first four points of the game and six of his team's first 10.
Tokoto would only finish with eight points on the night, but the rest of his game was impressive, as well.
My favorite was watching how involved he was in transition—especially on the offensive side. He had a couple really nice passes and called for an alley-oop that he finished on the other end.
Tokoto finished the game with eight points, four rebounds, two assists and three steals. He also went 2-of-4 from the free-throw line, which is one of my few worries about him. In his senior season, he only sank 53 percent of his free throws.
He also has to work on his perimeter game. He has improved from his junior campaign, but he only made 30 percent of his attempted three-pointers.
J.P. Tokoto's game still needs some polishing, and he will probably have time to do that. Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston may also be playing the 3 next season, so Tokoto may not see the minutes the other three recruits will be getting.
“J.P. is an incredibly athletic player and a wonderful young man. He really works hard and appreciates life. He has the ability to be a big-time defender and is outstanding around the rim. He has to be one of the most athletic players in the entire class.”
Brice Johnson has drawn many comparisons to John Henson, between his lanky body and shot-blocking ability.
Johnson is listed at 6'9” and 205 pounds, which is still about 20 pounds more than Henson in his senior year of high school. In an effort to stymie his weight-loss, Johnson has slowed down with track, where he was a state champion in high jump, long jump and the triple jump.
Fortunately, track wasn't the only sport he dominated in high school. In his senior year, Johnson averaged 25.4 points, 14.3 rebounds, seven blocks and three assists per game. He was also awarded the 2011-12 Gatorade South Carolina Boys Basketball Player of the Year.
Even at 6'9”, Johnson has great length and flaunts a pretty good mid-range jumper. He also has great hands and possibly better feet than Henson.
I was hoping to see some great action from Johnson in the 2012 McDonald's All-American Game, but he barely showed. He finished the game scoreless and only contributed with four rebounds, two assists, one block and one steal. It wasn't just about the stat lines either—I just never saw much activity.
I don't expect these young players to give it their all and risk injury before their college career begins, so I don't hold this performance against him. I was just very disappointed.
“We’re all going to need to be ready sooner. That’s fine with me, though. Bring it on. I’m ready. I’ve just got to gain weight.”
“Either way we’re going to be ready. All of us. I don’t want fans to drop their standards. We will show people next year. We’re going to be a force.”
“Brice plays for his dad at a small school in South Carolina, and he has tremendous upside as a player. He’s just now starting to realize what he can do on the basketball court. He blocks shots, is effective around the basket and is going to be a big-time athlete for us.”
Joel James is still a work in progress at this time. After all, he has only played basketball for three years now. But that doesn't mean he isn't good.
James is listed at 6'10” and 280 pounds, but he has shed close to 50 pounds since the weigh-in. He isn't slowing down, either. His after-school routine includes running, lifting and a gym session with one of his coach's assistants. He also does the occasional aerobics and swims on the weekend.
Needless to say, UNC has a hard worker in Joel James.
They will also be receiving a likely double-double performer. In his senior season, James averaged 15 points, 12.5 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game. He also shot 62 percent from the field.
James is very aggressive on the low block—more so than anyone on the 2011-12 team. He muscled his way to rebounds and dunks in high school, and I expect him to be able to do the same on the college stage.
Right now, most of his offense comes off put-backs, though. He's still in the developmental stages of a post game.
We didn't get to see him in action for the last two games, but James turned in a double-double at the All-Amercian Championship, scoring 12 points and grabbing 10 rebounds.
Joel James is still refining his game and his physique. When those two come together in perfect harmony, this big man could be a force in the paint—on both sides of the ball.
“Joel is an incredible story. He is one of 11 kids, and he decided on his own to do a great job in the classroom and on the basketball court. His is an incredibly positive story both in basketball and life. I know he will help us rebound the ball, block shots and improve his game on the offensive end.”
Check out high school highlights of Joel James.
Follow Rollin Yeatts on Twitter at @TSBRollin.