UNC Basketball: Which Freshman Will Have Biggest Impact on Tar Heels in 2012?

Rollin YeattsFeatured ColumnistAugust 13, 2012

UNC Basketball: Which Freshman Will Have Biggest Impact on Tar Heels in 2012?

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    There will be four new faces in Chapel Hill when the North Carolina Tar Heels open up their season on Nov. 10 against Gardner-Webb.

    Filling the shoes of Tyler Zeller, Kendall Marshall, John Henson and Harrison Barnes is no small task. But it's a task Roy Williams' latest crop of 4-star recruits must be prepared to handle.

    J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson, Joel James and Marcus Paige highlight the youth movement at UNC. Fortunately, there is experience in front of them to alleviate some of the pressure that comes with being a Tar Heel.

    Though all four players will have welcome contributions, some will be counted on more than others. But which freshman will leave the biggest footprint on Carolina's 2012 season?

    That's an excellent question, originally posed to me by fellow Tar Heel fan and Bleacher Report community member Cameron Gooding. This is the extended version of my answer.

J.P. Tokoto

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    Speaking of tough shoes to fill, not only will small forward J.P. Tokoto be playing the same position as Harrison Barnes, but he has also been touted as the next Vince Carter.

    Talk about pressure!

    The release valve will be open for Tokoto for at least one season, though. With Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston likely slotted at small forward, they will be taking the brunt of the pressure while Tokoto watches and learns.

    There is no doubt he will get his playing time. You can probably expect around 10 minutes per game throughout the season. The minutes won't be easy to come by, but Roy Williams will find a way to slide Tokoto in for experience and a high-flying spark that could ignite the crowd.

    Dunks like this have a way of doing that.

    While his presence will be felt with the roar of the crowd, it's hard to say he will have the biggest impact of all the freshman. He just won't have the minutes to do it.

Brice Johnson

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    While he doesn't fall as far back on the depth chart as Tokoto, the lanky power forward Brice Johnson still has James Michael McAdoo standing in his way.

    I expect more minutes from Johnson, as he may fill in at center from time to time. That will also depend on how sophomore Desmond Hubert pans out, possibly as Joel James' backup.

    Brice Johnson brings a lot to the table with his length, athleticism and range. Much like Tokoto, it would be wise for Coach Williams to slide him in whenever possible.

    Alas, you can probably only expect a contribution in the maximum range of 15 minutes per game from Johnson in 2012. This won't be his season to shine.

Joel James

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    Here's where the competition begins to get a lot tighter.

    I've made it no secret what I am expecting from Joel James. Unless Desmond Hubert turned himself into Hakeem Olajuwon in the offseason, I have no doubt James will be Carolina's starting center.

    They lost an inch at the 3, along with two inches at the 2 and 1 positions. Hubert and James both stand at about 6'10”, compared to Tyler Zeller at 7'0”. However, James has about half an inch and 40 pounds on the sophomore.

    What is lost in length should be made up with beef—and James has plenty to feed his opponents.

    That, along with his relentless pursuit of position, led to some “outlandish” statistical predictions by yours truly—none more so than in the category of rebounds.

    Whether you agree with the numbers or not, the fact remains he will be a major factor in UNC retaining a rebounding advantage over their opponents. The same can be said of blocks, as I don't see McAdoo coming close to Henson's 2.9 per game.

    Joel James will be a much-needed force in the defensive paint, and his impact will be felt. His performance in 2012 will be a major factor in the success of the Tar Heels, which is what makes this question so hard.

Marcus Paige

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    Since Roy Williams took over UNC, we have seen outstanding point-guard play from Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson and Kendall Marshall. Two of those players finished with titles, and there was a lot of potential for Marshall before he was injured and left early for the NBA.

    Though they played with some great athletes, it was clear that Roy's point guards are the spark plug to Carolina's engine. It just doesn't fire without them.

    Look at 2009-10 when Larry Drew II was running point. UNC lost to Dayton in the NIT championship. Yes, I said the NIT.

    After a 78-58 loss to Georgia Tech in 2011, Coach Williams put Marshall in, and the rest is history. The freshman helped lead the Heels to an Elite Eight appearance with a 17-3 record as a starter.

    When Marshall went down in the 2012 NCAA tourney, the Tar Heels fought all they could with walk-on Stilman White. But the offense was never the same, as they had trouble creating their own shots.

    The team made a valiant effort, marching their way to another Elite Eight, but they just couldn't get over the hump without a premier point guard like Marshall.

    There is a slim possibility Dexter Strickland will be the starting point guard when the season tips off, but I just don't see that happening. I believe that job will be left in the hands of freshman Marcus Paige.

    The perimeter game will be a focus in 2012, and that is something Paige definitely has over Strickland.

    In his senior season at Linn-Mar, Paige was forced to be more of an offensive weapon than a passer, with the lack of premier talent on his squad. While he only averaged 3.3 assists, he put up 28.1 points per game on 53 percent shooting.

    Those numbers will shift the other way at Carolina, but his ability to score shouldn't be overlooked.

    As we saw with Marshall when he started to put up treys, defenses have to play honest with a shooter. That leaves them susceptible to dribble drives that can be taken to the bucket or kicked out on the wing for one of Carolina's many sharpshooters.

    Beyond just his offensive prowess, Paige is also a pesky defender. He averaged 3.1 steals per game last season with the Lions. His footwork and hands are excellent, so we can expect that to translate to about 1.5 or so per game at the college level.

    According to Matt Morgan at Inside Carolina (subscription required), Paige's high-school coach Chris Robertson had this to say about his star point guard:

    “He’s not a scorer -- he’s a point guard. But to go through his senior year and score 28 points a game, he did everything in his power.”

    “He just had an impressive career and an impressive senior season. I would say, in a lot of ways, we probably overachieved what was expected out of us and I think a lot of that fell on Marcus this year.”

    Perhaps Roy Williams will say the same of Marcus Paige when the 2012-13 season reaches its conclusion.