UNC Basketball: Under-the-Radar Tar Heels Who Will Surprise in 2012-13
Until ESPN's Paul Biancardi graded UNC's 2012 recruiting class at the top of the ACC, I felt I was a loner in seeing the potential of the 2012-13 North Carolina Tar Heels.
I even began to question myself. Was I allowing a bias toward my favorite college team get in the way of my analysis? Surely I hadn't traveled down the dark path that strips a sportswriter of any credibility.
I desperately needed reassurance, so thank you, Paul Biancardi.
Feeling a renewed confidence in my previous assessments of the situation at UNC, I had a hard time coming up with who will be the under-the-radar surprises of the coming season. With so many young players, I'm not sure how many are future ballers in the NBA. What I do know is that this team is stacked with players that can dominate the college game.
The basketball world is in for a few surprises out of Chapel Hill—and I'm here to give you a sneak peek at them.
I feel I should preface my surprise players with my predicted starting lineup. There will be a lot of good players on this squad—something many fail to see. So predicting the starters is about as easy as predicting when the next hurricane will hit my home state of Florida.
I feel Marcus Paige will live up to his high expectations and open the season as the floor general. With this squad to feed to and his abilities as a pure point, Paige will have an impressive freshman campaign. However, the McDonald's All-American is hardly “under the radar.”
Dexter Strickland will likely be the first to spell him, over transfer Luke Davis. Strickland will occasionally shift to the 2, when Paige comes back in the game.
I know a lot of people, including ESPN's Robbi Pickeral, have Strickland starting over Leslie McDonald. I don't see him being the starting shooting guard this year, though. I feel McDonald will be taking that spot. Both have the ability to drive, but McDonald is a much better perimeter shooter.
Reggie Bullock made marked improvements in his game last year, including his defense. His size, athleticism, defense, shooting ability and experience has me thinking Bullock is a lock at the 3.
Brice Johnson has loads of potential, but there is no way on God's green earth he will be starting over James Michael McAdoo at power forward. If he makes much-needed improvements in the offseason, he will be a beast on both sides of the ball. I'm not breaking ground here—this would be no surprise to anyone.
It's probably more surprising that I said McAdoo needs to improve, but trust me, he does.
Finally, Roy Williams needs size and strength at the 5. There will be no better solution than the slimmed-down freshman Joel James.
Pickeral has Desmond Hubert starting, but I wasn't greatly impressed with him last year—especially on offense. The Tar Heels have gotten shorter with the loss of John Henson and Tyler Zeller. They will have to make up for that with someone that can bang around in the paint.
When an under-the-radar player, such as Reggie Bullock, has to share the court with four potential lottery picks, it's hard to get shine. Those guys are gone, and it's time for Bullock to step out of the shadow and put his name on the front pages.
As last season progressed, I could see development in Bullock's defense. His high energy, long arms and quick feet made it tough for opposing players to get by. I feel he is right up there with Strickland and McDonald in perimeter defense now.
Playing mostly shooting guard, Bullock didn't have much opportunity to work against the post, so that aspect of his defense is somewhat unknown.
Where he will really thrive is in this offense. Bullock has a great burst on his drives and occasionally showcased his ability to get to the bucket. Moving up to small forward will make more opportunity for such drives, and we will see how explosive he can be.
With that in mind, he also has a deadly jumper that will have defenses pressing him—allowing him to get by with a quick step or dish to an open man.
Bullock improved his three-point percentage, going from 29.6 percent his freshman year to 38.2 percent in his sophomore campaign. He also led the team in three-pointers attempted and made, with 71 and 186 respectively.
It's been a treat watching this young man grow. I fully expect even more growth, going into the 2012-13 season. And I feel he will make the biggest impact on this squad.
After a full season away from the game, Leslie McDonald is hardly a blip on the map. It seems as though only UNC fans have a clue about his potential. The rest of the world has blinders on.
For those that saw McDonald's performance in the North Carolina Pro-Am, you know exactly what I'm talking about. I don't give the game too much merit, as nobody really plays defense in these games, but I could still see that his dribbling had improved and his stroke looked even smoother.
He was expected to make a huge impact in 2011-12, coming off a season in which he led the team in three-point percentage. McDonald buried 38.1 percent of them in 2010-11, making 51 of his 134 attempts.
Expectations were already high for his shooting and defense. When he displayed his improved skill set at the NC Pro-Am, folks were ready for a big season from him.
Not only did that shorten the bench for Carolina and decimate what looked to be a great perimeter-shooting team, but he fell right off the map. Coming into this season, I guarantee there won't be much national talk about McDonald. People may mention the Tar Heels have more shooters, but he can also drive, causing all sorts of trouble for opposing defenses.
Though he won't surprise much of Tar Heel Nation, the rest of the basketball world will be shell-shocked.
As I said, the Tar Heels need someone that can bang around in the paint. At 6'10” and an estimated 230 pounds, after shedding 50, Joel James could be a beast in the middle.
Though he is a 4-star recruit, James is way off the radar. With only three years of basketball under his belt, he still has a lot of growing to do. He could be great, or he could be a complete bust.
Lucky for James, he chose the right coach to develop him into a dominant big.
Right now, most of Joel James' offense comes from dunks off passes and rebounds. He hasn't developed a post game or much of a jumper yet. He has an extremely high ceiling, though, and I fully expect him to work out his flaws.
What I really like about James right now, is his physicality. It almost seems as though he enjoys putting a body on opponents—something we didn't see much of from Zeller or Henson. He may have shed a lot of weight, but he undoubtedly got stronger with his rigorous workout routine.
James averaged a double-double in his senior season because of his physical nature. This is why I feel he won't have trouble shining glass or developing a tough post game on the college hardwood. He gained agility with his weight loss and already had the strength to knock opponents off the block—two key ingredients for the post.
I won't say he'll be a Zeller on the break, but he should be able to run with the rest of the team now, too.
There's no doubt there will be some growing pains, but I fully expect Coach Williams to start him from day one. By the time the tournaments come around, he will be ready to dominate the paint—and everyone will know exactly who Joel James is.
To me, it doesn't make much sense to put players coming off the bench as an under-the-radar surprise. However, my listed starters are not a lock, and a few of the bench players will get a lot of time in the game. Some could even steal a starting role.
If it plays out the way I see it, Dexter Strickland could be the best sixth man in the country. If he develops a better outside game, he could take the starting spot from McDonald. I feel he is a better all-around player than McDonald, but perimeter shooting could hold him back this season.
Nobody on the squad has proven he has a post game yet, so outside shooting will be critical. That's the only reason I don't have Strickland starting. I love his game, but if he can't bang home some 18-23 footers, his game will be pretty much the same—which I can hardly classify a surprise.
I don't see P.J. Hairston stealing a starting spot from Reggie Bullock at the 3, but he could jack the 2 from McDonald or Strickland. No matter what kind of playing time he gets, we will see a much better Hairston in 2012-13.
Touted as one of the best shooters to come out of the 2011 class, he hardly lived up to the billing. For the season, Hairston shot 27.3 percent from three-point range and an ugly 30.8 percent from the floor. We did see him step up toward the end of the season, and I fully expect him to settle in this year.
Hairston not only has a smooth jumper, but he can also get to the rim and throw down some monster dunks. He will be an exciting player to watch, if he develops into the player Roy Williams expected when he recruited Hairston.
Brice Johnson probably won't be taking anyone's starting job, but he could get enough time to make an impact and put his name on the map.
He will be coming in for both McAdoo and James and will probably get a good 15-20 minutes per game. That was enough for McAdoo to impress the country, so it could be enough for Johnson, too. He has the potential to become a very John Henson-like player.
Then there is J.P. Tokoto. I am really excited about this recruit. Unfortunately for Tokoto, UNC is pretty stacked at the wing.
As of now, he doesn't have much of a perimeter game, so I feel he will see more time subbing in for Bullock and Hairston than Strickland and McDonald. Either way he goes, Tokoto still has two guys in front of him, and it will be hard to get him in the game.
However, there will be the usual blow-outs before ACC play begins. This will be his time to shine. If he dominates the time he plays, he could steal someone's spot—especially if Hairston continues to shoot like he did last season.
Tokoto's ups are reminiscent of Vince Carter, and he plays very well in transition. If we don't see a lot from him in 2012-13, look out for him in 2013-14. This young man will be a force. Right now, he has to earn his way up the ranks.
This will be a very potent squad of Tar Heels, and I'm glad I don't have Roy Williams' job choosing the starters. I am glad I get to watch them play, though. We are in for an exciting season, folks.