UNC Basketball: Breaking Down Each Tar Heel's Role Within the Offense/Defense
The latest "shocker" from North Carolina's head coach Roy Williams came in Wednesday, and it didn't have anything to do with his health.
As I have been preaching throughout the offseason, it would appear freshman point guard Marcus Paige will indeed get the nod over senior combo guard Dexter Strickland. There has been a lot of controversy over who should start. After all, no freshman point guard has started for the Tar Heels since Bobby Frasor in 2005-06.
At UNC's last media day, Roy Williams seemed to, uncharacteristically, make an early decision on his starter at the 1:
Part of it is that Dexter is somewhat limited in what we’re going to do with him in practice. And, Dexter has never been a point guard. That has something to do with it, too.
Marcus Paige has a chance to be really good. He’s a little rascal… but he does know how to play and he has savvy and toughness. I’m really counting on him to be good.
In the same article from Greg Barnes and Inside Carolina, Strickland said he is at about "96 percent" in his recovery from the ACL surgery. Will that mean Leslie McDonald will get the start over him in the early games?
That's a strong possibility until Strickland can participate at 100 percent. It's a long season, and there shouldn't be a rush to get him on the floor for big-time minutes. It's more important they have him at the end of the season.
So where do these new revelations leave us?
It looks like the starters will probably be Marcus Paige, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock, James Michael McAdoo and Joel James when the season tips off with Gardner-Webb on Nov. 9. That's just my educated guess, and the lineup is definitely open to some shuffling as Roy sees what they're made of in practice.
If this is indeed the starting lineup, what will their roles be on offense and defense? That's a good question, and one I'm more than happy to answer. I'll also quickly cover the bench from six to 12.
All quotes, unless otherwise indicated, came from the October issue of Inside Carolina (subscription required). If you're a Carolina fan, be sure to pick up this issue! It's a great preview for the upcoming season.
Luke Davis and Jackson Simmons: The Blowout Crew
I like the work ethic of Luke Davis and Jackson Simmons, but that won't be enough to slide up from the 11 and 12 spots. They are both solid players and could get a lot more playing time on another team. But these two players are okay with their roles on the end of the bench in Chapel Hill.
You have to respect that.
Barring unforeseen injuries, this pair will probably only get used at the end of blowouts. McAdoo and Brice Johnson will be ahead of Simmons, just like last season with John Henson and McAdoo.
Davis will pretty much get the minutes Stilman White saw before Strickland went down. It's pretty much the same scenario here, too.
When they do see game action, Davis will be expected to run the point with mistake-free ball. He is very fundamentally sound, but he has a knack for throwing it away. He isn't a shooter, so his main job will just be to facilitate.
However, Roy Williams did note him as the best ball-handler on the squad.
Luke would have Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall coming out before practice trying to do ball-handling drills with him. They would show up a couple of days, but he showed up every day. He would do extra ball-handling drills every day. And so who was the best ball-handler on our team? Luke.
Jackson Simmons spent the last season going up against Tyler Zeller in practice. With a five-inch advantage for Z, and the skills to match, that had to make Simmons a better player.
When he is in the game, Roy will expect him to show that improvement by laying down some right hooks and mid-range jumpers. His grit is what makes Simmons who he is, and he will be expected to the most intense player on the floor.
Simmons feels the same way:
One thing I've been known to do is be the person to initiate diving on the floor. I really want to get back to having that as my motto being someone who will do the little things and whatever it takes to win.
Both Simmons and Davis are capable, but not great, defenders. Neither is a superior athlete or tall for their position. They will just be expected to stay in front of their man and use their strength as much as possible to hold position.
J.P. Tokoto: The Air Show
I hate to just label J.P. Tokoto as "The Air Show," but he probably won't get enough time for us to see all of his other skills. I can guarantee he will have enough time to throw down some dunks, though.
Tokoto's best attributes on offense are running the floor and, of course, throwing down some ridiculous jams. He's also a very solid rebounder, with a good feel for the ball off the carom.
He still has issues with consistency in his jumpers. He's a very streaky shooter, so I doubt Roy will lean too much on that portion of his game. I do expect Tokoto to get a fair share of alley-oops.
This is what Coach Williams had to say of Tokoto's athleticism:
He's a Vince Carter-type athlete. He gets way, way up there. I saw him do some kind of 360 and still brought it back and whammed it on the back of his head and dunked it, too. He was almost eyeball-to-eyeball with the rim.
Though his game still needs some work on offense, he's actually a very good defender. His leaping ability makes him a threat to block opponents, no matter his position. He sports some quick hands, too, swiping balls and taking them coast-to-coast.
Tokoto put a little of that on display at the Jordan Brand Classic.
While we shouldn't expect a lot of minutes from the young J.P. Tokoto, he will be impressive in the time he's on the floor.
Brice Johnson: John Henson, Part Deux
Brice Johnson is a better athlete than John Henson, but their freshman game is very similar. Both come in with excellent range and blocking abilities, but both came in undersized at their positions.
Johnson will pick up healthy amount of blocks when he fills in for McAdoo, but much like Henson, those blocks will come out of position due to being out-muscled by the opponent. A block is a block, though, and any positives he can provide defensively will be welcome.
Offensively, Roy likely won't be expecting an array of back-to-the-basket moves from Johnson. With his lack of strength, he plays more of a face-up game in the post. He will blow by defenders with a quick step and solid dribbles.
Johnson is at least a strong finisher at the rim and an able scorer from 15 feet out.
He's a work in progress, but he fell into the right system to improve his game in the post. And considering both Henson and Desmond Hubert managed to pack on over 30 pounds since arriving in Chapel Hill, I think it's safe to expect the same from Johnson.
With that will come a much more effective Brice Johnson at the college level.
Desmond Hubert: Shot-Blocker/Rebounder
As I mentioned earlier, Desmond Hubert managed to pack on close to 30 pounds this offseason. He also spent time with Rasheed Wallace and other North Carolina greats, developing his post game.
That's a big deal because he will likely subbing in for Joel James at the 5.
In the little time we saw him last season, we saw a guy that struggled in the post. The ACC is loaded with strong centers, and Hubert was simply man-handled. At 6'9", he didn't have the height to make up for the lack of size.
Now that he weighs in at 220 pounds, he should be much more effective around the basket. Roy will test him early and often in that area of the floor.
Hubert was still an effective rebounder, despite his size. In 123 minutes, he managed 37 rebounds—21 of those came off the offensive glass. That's basically a rebound every three minutes.
Henson grabbed a rebound every 2.9 minutes, to put things in perspective.
Hubert was also able to swat seven shots in that time, which is not quite on-par with Henson. But at 2.9 blocks per game last season, that's a little much to ask of the sophomore.
John Henson didn't leave without teaching him a few things, though:
When I first got here, I wasn't blocking as many shots as I thought I should have compared to when I was in high school and blocking everybody's shot. So John [Henson] helped me with timing and also blocking guys' shots that are a lot bigger and stronger than me. He taught me a couple of tricks there.
Desmond Hubert will have to adjust to the college game very quickly, as he will be asked to put in a nice chunk of minutes in relief of Joel James.
P.J. Hairston: Hired Muscle/Marksman
I know a lot of people are expecting P.J. Hairston to jump into the starting lineup—especially after his MVP performance in the NC Pro-Am. What you must understand, though, is the amount of talented wings this year.
Reggie Bullock also needs some help in his first season as a small forward. At 6'6" and 220 pounds, Hairston is the obvious choice. He has decent height and great strength to overtake defenders in the post.
While it's obvious Roy will send him out to knock down threes, he will be expected to be the bully off the bench. Hairston didn't take full advantage of his size, despite coming to Chapel Hill as an aggressive shooting guard.
He has the leaping ability and strength to finish strong at the rim.
Will he rebound from last year's shooting slump? At least he's listening to Hubert Davis about not kicking his legs out so much this season. While his coach is happy about that, he showed a little frustration for Hairston not listening to him last year:
We can't afford to have a guy not listen. The good thing is that I've mellowed out so much because in the old days that would have really ticked me off. I would have said 'Why in the crap would you believe him? Hell, I started telling you that the first day of frickin' practice.' But I've mellowed out a little bit, so I'm all right there. But that's what they've got to do. They've got to mature and listen and do what the crap they're told. And if they do that, they're going to find out that they're going to be a hell of a lot better off. That's an easy thing for me to say... Maybe I haven't mellowed as much as I thought.
It's hard not to love a good Roy Williams quote.
Moving to the 3 will also mean he will have to get on the boards a little more. He proved to be a solid rebounder last season, picking up 2.2 per game in 13 minutes at the 2. That shouldn't be an issue on either side of the ball.
Hairston probably won't pick up many blocks on defense, unless it's coming from behind. He will just be tasked with disrupting shots and bumping guys off their block. He isn't a highlight reel on defense, but he put together a pretty solid game last season.
Dexter Strickland: Slasher/Defender of the Perimeter
At least for the start of the season, Dexter Strickland will likely be the sixth man. There is no need to hurry his return to the starting five—he just needs to be 100 percent by the time ACC play begins.
Even if he stays the sixth man, Dexter Strickland will be extremely valuable to this team.
When fully healthy, Strickland will still get starter's minutes even if he is indeed the sixth man. Filling in for both McDonald and Paige should earn him at least 20 minutes off the bat. So Dex fans need not worry if he isn't a part of the starting five.
Strickland has a pretty solid mid-range game but has yet to become efficient behind the arc. He is a career 23.8-percent shooter from that range and only attempted one three last season—albeit a shortened one for him.
However, he shot 43 percent on attempts from 10 to 20 feet. He's a better jump shooter now than he is given credit for.
The deadliest part of his game is slashing, though. At least it was before the surgery. We'll have to see if he has the same quickness, but that's what all the months of physical therapy is for. It will be more of a mental transition than physical.
Does he have trust in his knee?
Whether he is at the 1 or the 2, these are things that will be expected of him. He's always been one to dish the ball if he sees someone open on the drive, so the passing aspect of his game comes fairly naturally. He won't be one to thread the needle and take a lot of chances, though.
And I'm sure that's just fine with Coach Williams.
While he isn't very long or tall, Strickland has been the best perimeter defender because of his lateral quickness. Once he locks on his man, there is just no getting around Dex. He also does a great job of filling the passing lane and picking off feeds.
That leads to the open court, where Dexter Strickland truly shines.
Joel James: Monster in the Middle
Joel James will simply be asked to do what he does best: get physical and clog up the paint with his 260-pound frame.
James will be a human wrecking ball at this level, even in his freshman campaign. Imagine how big he can get through the Carolina strength and conditioning program that put 30 pounds on a lanky Hubert and Henson.
Opponents, be scared.
While James is big, by no means is he a clumsy oaf. Losing 50 pounds of body fat over the last year has made him a stronger, faster and more agile big man. That should make him a better shot blocker, rebounder and all-around defender. As he said:
A lot of people don't recognize it, but I'm actually kind of quick for a big man, so I can surprise a lot of guards by coming off the help side and blocking or altering their shots. I can move fore my size. I can cause havoc on the offensive end by filling the lane.
After only three years of basketball experience, I'd say James has a pretty good grip on the game.
Obviously, he will be the man to look to for rebounds, blocks and disrupting the post with his craving for physicality. But what will be expected of him on the offensive end?
Probably more than originally anticipated.
Since he wasn't used as an offensive juggernaut in high school, many don't expect him to be a weapon on that side of the ball. But he did spend the summer improving his game and was the last cut of the Team USA U-18 squad.
I actually heard him get knocked for being cut from the squad. Considering he is ranked No. 60 on the 2012 ESPN 100, I'd say being the last cut is pretty impressive. That speaks for the strides he's made since picking up the basketball three years ago.
James has a surprisingly smooth stroke for a big, which is critical with as many times as he will likely be hitting the charity stripe. Roy loves to get his guys on the foul line, and he will be sure to feed James for that reason.
James can also take that stroke out 10-15 feet and drop one. His game won't just be under the basket, though I'm sure he will spend a majority of his time there.
When it comes to Joel James in 2012, expect the unexpected. This kid can ball.
Leslie McDonald: Sharpshooter
While I've labeled Leslie McDonald a sharpshooter, that may not be the only thing he provides this season. In his off time, he has drastically improved his dribbles and appears to have a more well-rounded game.
Now he has the ability to use his size to his advantage by working the post and getting into the paint. At 6'5" and 215 pounds, he should be able to handle just about any 2-guard thrown at him.
That isn't to say he will dominate his opponent. I'm still not sold on that until I see him play in something other than the Pro-Am. It's hard to truly judge a player against a non-existent defense.
No matter how expansive his role ends up on offense, the main thing Roy will be looking for is McDonald bringing consistency back to UNC's three-point game—an area they have been lacking consistency since the 2008-09 squad. Though he went down as the team leader in 2010-11 with a 38.1-percent clip from three, that didn't stop him from trying to improve. He said:
Actually, sitting out helped me a little but more because it made me focus on my [shooting] mechanics. I'm not able to run, and I'm not able to cut. So all I can do is work on my mechanics and make sure everything is lined up. I think it definitely helped me.
Perhaps Strickland did the same. It certainly worked for Reggie Bullock last season.
On defense, McDonald is a little underrated. I think that's partially because Strickland has been so good, and also because we haven't seen him play for over a year.
McDonald is surprisingly quick in his lateral movement, and he has the long arms to disrupt shots and poke the ball out. He is also very aggressive while on the floor, not hesitating to take a dive or rip the ball out of an opponent's hands.
It's hard to live up to Strickland and Bullock's defense, but I would easily give McDonald the third-best perimeter defender on the squad.
James Michael McAdoo: The Angler
Like the predator fish of the deep sea, James Michael McAdoo baits his prey in the passing lanes. The seemingly open player is that tempting neon light that protrudes from the anglerfish. As soon as the ball is released, McAdoo slides into the lane, picking it off and taking it coast-to-coast for a jam.
To me, that's his best asset.
With the lock-down defenders on the wing, and massive increase in playing time from last season, we will see a lot of this from McAdoo in 2012-13. I'm willing to bet he ends up in the top five for steals. He's crazy good.
When Carolina gets in transition, it's a nightmare for opponents. His steals will be a key to some big wins.
I wouldn't consider McAdoo to be very physical, which is why it was so important to pick up a monster like James. He has the size at 230 pounds, but he hasn't developed that bruiser mentality. That's something that will have to change in order to defend ACC post men.
He does make up for a lot of that with his motor. If you just watch McAdoo (at least in the tourney), he never stops working. It's pretty impressive, but I'm sure Roy will want to see a little more physicality to go with it this season.
On offense, he will be expected to take a few mid-range jumpers and get to the rim. Until he shows some back-to-the-basket moves in the post, I'm not so sure he will be the "go-to" guy. His face-up game is pretty solid, but he gets off balance trying to avoid contact.
McAdoo did work on these things over the summer, and I'm hoping to see a more physical player this year. At his position, it will be a requirement. The team needs rebounders and post men, and the only way to maximize those areas is being tougher than the other guy.
Reggie Bullock: Mr. Do-It-All
Emerge from the shadows, young Reggie Bullock.
It's kind of tough to get the spotlight when the media labels a fellow recruit "the next Michael Jordan." Bullock came in ranked the No. 2 shooting guard in the nation by Scout. Harrison Barnes was meant to be the guy, and Bullock the role player that drops threes.
Now Barnes is gone, and Bullock will step up and fill his spot at the 3.
He will surprise a lot of people with his game this season. He will be asked to get in the lane more, and he has the quickness, size and handles to do just that. Bullock displayed those abilities in the tournament when Marshall went down and the team needed more penetration.
Bullock focused on that part of his game this summer:
Coach told me that's what he wanted me to do, get to the basket, so I've just got to be able to attack every time. If I believe I'm one of the best players on the court, I've got to play like it every night.
With all the penetration, his solid pull-up jumper should keep defenders off balance. There's no doubt in my mind that Reggie Bullock will be the go-to guy in Carolina.
Another positive in his transition to small forward is his ability to rebound. He was about to snatch 5.1 rebounds per game from the 2. On the flip side, Barnes averaged 5.2 from the 3. Bullock should be able to assist in making up for losing 20 rebounds per game from the dynamic duo of Henson and Zeller.
On defense is where we saw Bullock make the most strides last season.
He came into the season a pretty good defender, but when Strickland went down, he began to step up as the top perimeter defender. Adrian Atkinson of Inside Carolina points out that Bullock's opponents only shot 25.5 percent beyond the arc, and he was only behind Zeller and Henson in stop percentage at 62.2.
He will need to defend the post, too. That's one area he is a little less familiar. We'll just have to wait and see how well he can perform in that area.
Marcus Paige: The General
As I said in the opening, it would appear freshman Marcus Paige will be holding the reins of this Carolina offense. He is just too good to leave on the bench when there is an opening at point.
Sure, Strickland can hold his own at the 1, but he isn't a true point guard—Marcus Paige is.
But shouldn't the point guard be an experienced leader that can control the floor? Paige feels he can be that as a freshman:
It's always important for your point guard to be a leader—even as a freshman. I know some people think freshmen can't be leaders but I don't really buy that. If you're a point guard on the floor and you know what's going on, you can lead the team. Hopefully I can bring those two things.
With that mentality, I don't doubt that he will bring it.
Like Marshall's lack of quickness, Paige uses change of pace to gain an advantage despite his slight frame. Paige is a pretty quick player, but he doesn't go full throttle the whole time and make careless plays.
This is a smooth operator Roy Williams has brought to Chapel Hill.
On top of vision, pace and passing ability, Paige can also be a scorer. When you think Carolina shooters, you think McDonald, Bullock and Hairston. It won't be long before Paige joins the group.
Paige shot 44 percent on 117 three-point attempts in his senior season at Linn-Mar.
To go along with his jump shooting, he has a nice floater and can find the angles to score near the rim. Unlike Marshall, he has ups to help him finish in the paint. He will be a scoring threat at all times.
On defense is where we will probably see struggles with his size. Paige is a quick defender with good hands and feet, but he can easily be bullied. Until he can pack on some meat, he'll just have to bait his opponent into charges.
He will get his share of steals, though.
It will be pretty magical watching Marcus Paige have to grow up so fast. He seems to be mentally prepared for the task. It won't be long before his name is well-known around the college circuit.
It will have to be for Carolina to become contenders.
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