UNC Basketball: Examining Each Freshman's Role Within the Tar Heel Offense
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There are questions abound in Chapel Hill, and many of them revolve around the North Carolina Tar Heels' productivity on offense. Other questions include the UNC freshmen who may as well be labeled "The Replacements."
The nickname has no derogatory intentions, as this is a fine group of freshmen that Roy Williams has put together. But few classes have been left with the duty of replacing four Tar Heel legends.
The loss of Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller has many among the sports world questioning the competitiveness of the 2012-13 squad. Can freshmen Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Joel James live up to the standards of their positional predecessors?
The good news is they don't all have to—at least not right away.
The weight of the latest NBA draft doesn't rest solely on all four sets of shoulders. There is still enough depth left in Carolina where none of them will "have" to jump into a starting role.
However, there are two positions that undeniably lack depth, and I have a feeling two freshmen will earn starting spots at those positions this fall. Beyond just scoring, they will be an integral part of this offense.
As for the other two freshmen, they will have their roles on offense, too. They just won't be utilized as much this season.
What will their roles be? Read on.
J.P. Tokoto Highlights
As much as I'd like to say J.P. Tokoto will be a major part of Carolina's aerial assault, he won't be—at least not this year. He's sitting at the bottom of a stacked deck.
Coach Williams has been dealt an overabundance of guards and a lack of experience at small forward with the departure of Barnes. The result of that will likely be Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston—the tallest and strongest guards of the group—moving to the 3.
While neither is as gifted as Tokoto in the air, both have more bulk and game at this point than the 185-pound freshman.
Tokoto has yet to establish the perimeter game we will likely see from the Bullock and Hairston combo. So don't expect him to come out shooting beyond the arc. We may not even see many jump shots, for that matter.
While he is perfectly capable from mid-range, most of his time will likely be spent on the boards and catching backdoor alley-oops. Tokoto is also outstanding in transition, where his great hands and athleticism can be fully unleashed.
This season will at least provide Tar Heel fans with a glimpse of what's to come from this young prospect.
Brice Johnson Highlights
I wouldn't put it past Coach Williams to start Brice Johnson if his light shines brighter than James Michael McAdoo's in practice. But I think it's safe to say McAdoo's starting role at North Carolina is a lock as long as he is in Chapel Hill.
The good news for Johnson is that will probably only be for the next year. And unlike the 2 and 3 positions, there isn't much depth at the 4.
As it stands now, Johnson has a much better shot at earning big-time minutes than Tokoto.
Brice Johnson has just about everything you could ask for from a power forward except strength. His game is very similar to that of John Henson, as he comes in with range and a solid face-up game. As Henson used his overwhelming length, Johnson uses quickness and leaping ability to block shots and snag rebounds.
We won't see Johnson back down anyone this season, but you can expect him to shoot a healthy dose of mid-range jumpers and take his defender to bucket from time to time.
Like Tokoto, he will also be a major factor on the offensive boards when he is in the game. And we might just see him slip in the back door for an occasional alley-oop, too. I'm hoping the athleticism of this squad will convince Roy to use the backdoor more often than last season.
In the end, Brice Johnson will only leave a small footprint on the Carolina offense. But there is no doubt he will have to find ways to contribute when McAdoo is sitting. If he is effective enough, he could back up Joel James, too.
We'll just have to see what Desmond Hubert has to say about that.
Joel James Highlights
Roy Williams appears to be in an offensive pickle at the 5 after losing Zeller. Neither Joel James or Desmond Hubert come into the 2012-13 season with an established repertoire on offense, though both have been working at it during the offseason.
But I think Roy's hat will be tipped in the direction of the freshman man-child Joel James. Hubert is more of a finesse player, while James is a relentless attacker on both ends of the court.
With McAdoo's lack of inside game and back-to-the-basket moves, someone is going to have to take up space in the middle and be the physical being in the paint. While the other two aforementioned freshmen will get their rebounds with leaping ability, James will get his share by controlling the block with his 260-pound frame.
He also may be used as a scoring weapon more often than most anticipate.
"We're pushing [James] to run like crazy and we're throwing him the ball," Roy Williams said in an interview from the latest issue of Inside Carolina. "He's never had that."
James will likely be fed close to the basket and be more physical his opponent for a layup or dunk. This will be where Carolina will force the most blocking fouls, and James has a good enough stroke at the line to capitalize on that.
Once he establishes himself down low, that will free up the UNC backcourt and leave their opponents vulnerable to a kick-out for three.
He can also drop a jumper from as far out as 15 feet, so don't be surprised if we see him pop one off after setting a high screen.
Joel James is a work in progress, but Roy will be molding him from an excellent piece of framework. James has a lot of catching up to do with only three years of basketball experience, but I have a feeling this young man will be a quick learner when he is pushed into the front lines.
Marcus Paige Highlights
Anyone that says the kid in that highlight reel can't impact this squad is off their rocker. Marcus Paige is for real, despite his slight measurements.
That seems to be the biggest knock on the Tar Heels' latest floor general. At 6'1" and 157 pounds, detractors have an argument to make. But I seem to remember a certain Ed Cota sporting a similar frame.
I don't think anyone that follows the Tar Heels would argue with what Cota was able to do at this level. He was the 1997 ACC Rookie of the Year, broke the single-season record for assists the following year and led Carolina to three Final Four appearances.
There has been plenty of undersized players that thrived in college but couldn't compete in the NBA. Maryland's Juan Dixon also comes to mind.
What matters this year is how Paige plays on the college hardwood.
And don't give me the fact he is a "just" 4-star recruit and not the No. 1-ranked point guard like Ty Lawson. Kendall Marshall was a 4-star that ranked No. 9 in the country at his position.
Now that I'm done ranting, let's talk about what he will do on offense.
At Linn-Marr, Marcus Paige was an offensive juggernaut. While he only averaged 3.3 assists, he put up 28.1 points per game on 53 percent shooting. It was a must with their lack of scoring options.
He may be small in stature, but he has enough quickness and ball skills to get by his defender and enough lift to score in the paint. When the defender backs off to block him from the lane, Paige can make him pay by dropping a trey in his eye.
Paige shot 44 percent beyond the arc last season on 117 attempts. He isn't afraid to shoot it.
If he can get in the paint and pick up some fouls, he is an 86 percent shooter from the charity stripe. That would help boost Carolina's awful 67.7 percent free-throw shooting from last season.
Though he was forced to score more than pass in prep, Marcus Paige has excellent vision and has no problems dishing the rock.
I think it is clear Paige will be the most impactful freshman on offense. But will he be the starting point guard?
Roy Williams refuses to set his lineups in stone before he sees them over a few weeks of practice. However, in the latest issue of Inside Carolina, he gave a couple indicators of where he is leaning.
Greg Barnes asked him if he "plans to keep Dexter at point guard full-time." Here is Roy's answer:
No. That plan has never been in my mind because Dexter is not a point guard. My thing is to try to get Dexter to be a more efficient point guard, but he's not a point guard. Never has been.
Greg Barnes also asked if Paige would have a chance to see a lot of playing time this year:
I think he does. I really think he's got a chance to be a special player. You never can tell how a freshman is going to react until you put him out there, but I have a tremendous amount of confidence that he'll react very well.
It sounds to me we have as clear-cut a starter as Roy Williams is willing to give us. Again, nothing will be set in stone until practice is under way.
I have a good feeling about Marcus Paige, though. There will be some freshman jitters that lead to mistakes on the floor. But the hefty chunk of minutes he will play from the beginning of the season will help mold him into a solid floor general by the time ACC competition rolls around.
Get ready to enjoy another year of top-notch play at the point.