The North Carolina Tar Heels are becoming pretty familiar with the unknown.
Last season, UNC was recovering from the loss of four starters that went to the NBA. That depleted its experience and depth, forcing underclassmen to step into starting roles.
The hope is that experience will carry over to the 2013-14 season. But sometimes player development takes longer than anticipated. And their progression will be a key factor in making this program a contender once again.
So will the development of a certain summer storyline.
With so much youth on this squad, we could really list everyone on the roster as a "wildcard." But we have narrowed the list to just five, focusing on the Tar Heels that need to step up their games the most—or be available, in one case.
Unfortunately for UNC, it's getting used to negative offseason publicity. P.J. Hairston's lapse in judgement contributed to this summer's storylines.
Following a "drug assessment" and the presentation of his current license, Hairston's charges have been dismissed by the state.
But the story isn't over.
Twice, he has been pulled over while driving a rental car—both of which were rented by different people at the same address. The implication is that he was given a benefit for being an athlete, in which case the NCAA would step in.
And we know what that means.
However, he could also be completely innocent in the matter. That is something we can't forget. He could have just borrowed the cars from a buddy, instead of it actually being rented for Hairston to use.
In that case, he would probably get a hard slap on the wrist, in the form of a few games, for putting himself and the program at risk.
P.J. Hairston is the biggest playmaker on this roster, and losing him could change the landscape entirely. He does have some developmental concerns—such as his mid-range game, handles and on-ball defense—but his eligibility is the greatest of all.
Hairston's development means nothing if he can't lace up.
As a sophomore, center Desmond Hubert gave the Tar Heels a nice defensive spark throughout the season. But his lack of an offensive game was troubling enough to limit his minutes to under 10 per game.
At 1.1 points per contest, he had the lowest average of any UNC scholarship player other than third-string point guard Luke Davis. What's worse is he was just 3-of-14 from the free-throw line.
That may be the part of his game he needs to improve the most.
Playing down low, he is going to get fouled. Coach Williams isn't going to keep him on the floor if he can't put it in the hole.
He's going to need to find a way to do it in the paint, too.
Inside Carolina has reported that Hubert is working on his jump shot, post moves and is solidifying his jump hook from both sides. With those weapons in his arsenal, he should become more confident and aggressive on the offensive end.
It seemed like he didn't even want the ball in his hands last season.
As much as Hubert brings to the defensive side of the floor with quickness, length and blocked shots, Coach Williams needs a threat at the position on offense. That will take attention away from star power forward James Michael McAdoo, giving him better looks in the paint.
Even if Hubert doesn't start, he will play significant minutes this coming season. And the Tar Heels can't afford a drop-off in production when he hits the floor.
One would hope Leslie McDonald would be a solid piece of the Tar Heel arsenal by his fifth year in the program. But the way he shot down the final stretch of the season left a lot of folks skeptical.
McDonald was off to a blazing start in his first 14 games, shooting 43.1 percent from downtown. After getting suspended and tweaking his knee, he was never the same.
In the final 16 games of the season, L-Mac only converted 28.8 percent of his attempts.
We may never know why his production dropped off so abruptly. He could have been disappointed with himself for the suspension, and just carried that emotion onto the floor.
Or this could be what we should expect.
McDonald shot 38.1 percent from downtown as a sophomore in 2010-11. But he did fade in the NCAA tournament, where he was just 2-of-13 from that range.
And this is just the shooting concerns.
McDonald needs to step up in place of the departed Reggie Bullock, who regularly filled up the stat columns with points, rebounds, assists and steals—whether he was playing the 2 or the 3.
Even more weight will land on McDonald's shoulders if Hairston isn't available.
He has appeared capable of putting up similar numbers in his limited play with the Tar Heels. But you never really know until a player gets the opportunity.
Sometimes it takes consistent minutes for a player to find his groove, and McDonald could find it as a starter.
The Tar Heels need Leslie McDonald to step up as a leader and a big-time contributor. Otherwise, there will be a gaping hole at the 2.
There is no doubt J.P. Tokoto is a project. But he's a project with loads of potential.
Tokoto is easily the most impressive athlete on the squad. He just isn't as developed as most of the other Tar Heels.
That's something that needs to be fixed very quickly. There is a serious lack of depth on the wing, and that issue is only amplified if North Carolina loses Hairston for any amount of time.
Tokoto's raw athleticism and high activity led to a lot of rebounds and put-back jams. But it was rare for him to create his own offense. His jumper was inconsistent from just about any range—and virtually non-existent from behind the arc.
He was just 1-of-11 on three-point attempts.
In a post-workout presser, via ICTV, we found out that Tokoto is working hard on that aspect of his game. He's arriving early to workouts to get in some time with the ball machine, hoping to hone his jump-shooting skills. When he's done there, he works with Hubert Davis on his off-the-dribble shooting.
It appears most of his issues are mechanical. He isn't very balanced when he shoots, and that's the type of kink Davis can work out for Tokoto. It's just a matter of repetition and muscle memory.
Having "touch" is something else all together. We won't know if he has that until he hits the hardwood in a game situation.
No matter what, Tokoto will provide the Tar Heels with stellar defense and hustle plays on both ends of the floor. But it sure would be nice to have a shot to go with that.
Especially if he is needed at the 2.
Of all the wildcards on the roster, Joel James' development will have the greatest impact on this team—whether positive or negative.
Roy Williams struggled with his center rotation last season. Hubert provided no offense and James simply made too many freshman mistakes.
This eventually forced Williams to go with a small lineup, featuring James Michael McAdoo as the center. The Tar Heels were more successful with this lineup, but it was only a temporary solution.
Coach Williams' scheme requires two dominant posts to open up the floor for the rest of the players. That's the scheme that brought home two titles to Chapel Hill.
Now that James has had some time to reflect, he pinpointed his greatest issue in an interview with Go Heels TV this summer.
You’re always harder on yourself. I feel like I was frustrated. Just a lot of anger, a lot of frustration upon myself, knowing I could do a lot more.
Have you ever heard the saying. ‘Confidence is like deodorant; if you don’t have it on, you stink?' That’s what it is.
That's the unfiltered truth. A player can have all the physical tools in the world, but that means nothing if he doesn't have confidence.
James definitely has the tools. He stands at 6'10" and weighs 280 pounds right now, with a shooting touch most big men would make a deal with the Devil for. With the help of the coaching staff and the former Tar Heels that regularly visit Chapel Hill in the summer, James is building on his skill set and his confidence.
If he can put it all together this summer, James may develop into the most feared center in the ACC. And Roy's dual-post scheme will be back in full force.
If he doesn't, the Tar Heels will have to rely on the offensively challenged Desmond Hubert or freshman Kennedy Meeks. If those options fall through, others will be forced out of position with a smaller lineup once again.
As far as development is concerned, Joel James will be the most important wildcard in this stack.
There will be a lot of discussion over the offseason involving each of these players listed. Some will have faith in them; others will deny their potential.
No matter the perception of these wildcards, though, everyone can agree North Carolina's season is riding on their contributions.