UNC Basketball: Roy Williams Must Pick a Center Before ACC Schedule

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UNC Basketball: Roy Williams Must Pick a Center Before ACC Schedule
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Will this merry-go-round ever come to a stop?

Try as I might, I've had a tough time making sense of Roy Williams' strategy at the center position for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Between the constant rotation of Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert, along with the experimentation of a small lineup, all consistency has been lost at the 5.

Struggles should be expected after losing premier center—and ACC Player of the Year—Tyler Zeller. After all, UNC is having to look to a sophomore that was buried on the depth chart last season and two freshman to take his spot.

But with UNLV and the start of the ACC schedule right around the corner, it's getting to be crunch time for Coach Williams to pick a center. Going small could be effective in spurts, but I don't see it being a winning strategy without going to a zone defense—especially against the bigs of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

I think a perfect summation of this debacle can be found in the three candidates' minutes. Desmond Hubert has started the most games of the group, with seven starts in the books. Joel James has started three times, and Brice Johnson has two starts to his name.

Yet, Desmond Hubert has played the least minutes of the three, and he's 10th on the team with an average of 9.8 minutes per game. As a matter of fact, Hubert has only reached double-digit minutes six times in 12 games.

If anyone can make sense of that, please feel free to lend your insight. Personally, I have been dumbfounded.

I understand there isn't much that separates the talents of Hubert, James and Johnson. None of them are the complete package at this stage in their careers.

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Desmond Hubert is quick and long at 6'9", 220 pounds, but he isn't physical and lacks offense beyond open dunks. Admittedly, he doesn't get much opportunity with the ball in his hands. But James and Johnson (when playing the 5) don't either.

Hubert averages one block every 13 minutes, which is the best of the group. But his one rebound every 4.9 minutes is the worst of the group. He is also 0-of-7 from the free-throw line this season, and is 1-of-20 for his career at Chapel Hill.

I think Hubert has progressed through the season, but his playing time hasn't been indicative of that. His starts have, though, which continues to boggle my mind.

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Brice Johnson has been impressive in his first season with the Tar Heels, to say the least. He still leads the team in field-goal percentage (excluding Luke Davis, who is 2-of-2) at 62 percent.

Johnson is also the only candidate for center who is also playing power forward, which is his natural position. The 4 is where he has been the most effective. He seems to disappear more often at the center position.

Despite his length and ups, it's going to be hard for a 187-pounder to be effective on the block in the ACC.

What he brings to the table is the most offensive firepower of the three, averaging 8.7 points per contest. In comparison to Hubert, Johnson swats shots at a rate of one every 16.2 minutes and grabs one rebound every 2.7 minutes.

Unlike Hubert, he has been able to knock down his freebies, going 6-of-10 from the charity stripe.

But when looking at Johnson's stats, one must consider that most of his production has come from the power forward position.

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The advantage of having Joel James in the lineup is pretty clear. At 6'10", 260 pounds, he has 73 pounds on Johnson and 40 pounds on Hubert. That is a lot of man being wasted on the bench.

The drawback of James is also plain to see. This is only his fourth year of organized basketball, and it shows at times, with turnovers and a lack of confidence in the post. But I also see glimpses of greatness that will only become more prevalent with experience.

James has gradually become more of the physical player I expected to see at Carolina. He has also been surprisingly good at executing Roy's hedge-and-recover scheme on defense, considering his lack of experience. On top of that, he has one of the softest shooting touches I've seen from a player his size.

Continuing the statistical comparisons of the three, James is averaging one block every 21.8 minutes and one rebound every 3.6 minutes. While he didn't come out on top in either of those categories, his 9-of-14 shooting from the free-throw line is the best of the group—in both attempts and percentage.

While he is only averaging 3.6 points per game, he is shooting 17-of-32 from the field.

As you can see, there isn't much to separate Hubert, Johnson and James. I have empathy for Coach Williams, as the players aren't making it an easy pick. But the "revolving door" strategy isn't making it easy, either.

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None of the players have time to get comfortable with what they do on the court, working in short spans of two-to-five minutes, and sporadically inserted throughout the game. If he's expecting someone to jump off the screen with that rotation, it'll be tourney time before he makes a decision.

Though I'd love to see Brice Johnson get as many minutes as possible, and I've been pretty pleased with Desmond Hubert of late, I truly believe Joel James is the best option to carry the Tar Heels through the ACC gauntlet.

James has the size, the touch, the rebounding and the occasional shot-blocking UNC needs at the 5. He has also been able to get to the line, which has been an issue with this year's squad.

Yes, James needs development—that is undeniable. But there is nothing like game experience to make that happen.

It's decision time in Chapel Hill.

 

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