North Carolina Basketball: Ranking Tar Heels' 5 Most Indispensable Players

Rollin YeattsFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2013

North Carolina Basketball: Ranking Tar Heels' 5 Most Indispensable Players

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    North Carolina hasn't had the quiet summer it was hoping for. But there is a good chance the Tar Heels will make some noise this season in a more positive fashion.

    Roy Williams has put together a deep squad of talented players at UNC—all of who will have an impact on the team's success. However, there are at least five players on this squad who will be indispensable to coach Williams.

    Between their talent and the positional needs of the Tar Heels, these players will have the greatest influence on the team's competitiveness.

    Unfortunately, Williams has to live without at least one of them for an undetermined chunk of the season.

5. Joel James

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    The fifth spot on this list was the toughest to make a decision on. Leslie McDonald could be considered indispensable with P.J. Hairston missing games and no other shooting guard on the roster. On the other hand, there is the center position, which is stacked with three players. None of them, however, have proven anything at this level.

    It's a bit of a toss up here, but with the three-point shooting of Marcus Paige and a backup point guard in freshman Nate Britt, the center position may be a bigger factor. The Tar Heels were vulnerable last season without an impact center to dish the rock to, and power forward James Michael McAdoo was forced into double- and triple-teams on the regular.

    He was even moved to center to make room for another scorer in Hairston.

    This season has to be different, and the most likely center to step up to the challenge is sophomore Joel James.

    There is no questioning James' physique. He's a rock-solid 280 pounds and stands at 6'10". The same can be said of his surprisingly soft shooting touch.

    The questions surrounding James are about his mental errors last season. He was a fish out of water as a freshman. He often dropped passes, picked up petty fouls and traveled during simple ball rotations.

    When his head wasn't getting in the way, though, James appeared to be every bit the monster Roy Williams was hoping for when he recruited him.

    He was an efficient scorer, dropping 51.7 percent of his shots last season. He was also snatching up a rebound every 3.9 minutes, which should increase this season with a summer of coaching.

    Good luck to the opponents trying to box out that frame.

    If James improves on the defensive end and becomes more confident with his offensive game, he will prove to be one of the most indispensable players on the squad.

     

4. Brice Johnson

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    Brice Johnson showed a lot of promise last season as a freshman at UNC. The 6'9" power forward averaged 5.4 points, 3.2 rebounds and 0.5 blocks over just 10.6 minutes per game.

    He also reached double digits in points nine times through his first 15 games, including a career-high 16 against Chaminade.

    Unfortunately, Coach Williams eventually had to shift to a small lineup, which reduced the budding star's minutes as the season progressed. This season will likely be different.

    James Michael McAdoo has returned for another season in Chapel Hill, so Brice Johnson won't be sliding into that spot anytime soon. However, he did fill in at center last season, and he has been playing small forward during pickup games this summer.

    That's the kind of guy coaches love to have come off the bench first. Williams can stick Johnson in at three different positions and know he'll find a way to produce some points off the bench.

    Easy B was one of the most consistent shooters last season, burying 51.1 percent of his shots. During those first 15 games, he was also 61-of-97 from the floor.

    That's a cool 62.8 percent.

    Johnson was more than capable of doing damage last season. This season, he'll have about 20 more pounds on his frame to help with the physical side of the game.

    Brice Johnson is going to be a stud of a sixth man.

3. James Michael McAdoo

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    There is still a little apprehension in predicting a true breakout season for junior James Michael McAdoo. He had a tendency to be out of control in his first season as a starter, and that directly affected his efficiency.

    McAdoo shot just 44.5 percent from the floor while handing over a team-high 2.7 turnovers per game. He also only shot 57.8 percent from the free-throw line.

    The rest of his numbers were great, though. The power forward averaged 14.4 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists and a team-leading 1.5 steals per game.

    The potential is there.

    Think about this: If McAdoo shot 50 percent—the standard minimum for posts—he would have averaged 17.9 points per game. And if he shot at least 70 percent from the free-throw line, that number goes up to 18.4.

    Just a few summer tweaks and McAdoo could be ranked among the nation's best.

    That will start with adding a back-to-the-basket game and improving his dismal free-throw shooting percentage—both of which he is working on during the offseason.

    Last season was a reality check for McAdoo after the previous summer of hype. Now he knows it will take a little more than natural talent to produce at this level.

    If he can blend a strong skill set with his God-given athleticism, McAdoo will be virtually impossible to stop.

2. Marcus Paige

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    It may seem a little odd to place Marcus Paige above James Michael McAdoo, but there is a reason beyond just skill: It's also his position.

    In 2012, the Tar Heels looked well on their way to a showdown with Kentucky in the title game before Kendall Marshall went down. With Dexter Strickland also unavailable, Roy Williams was forced to use a walk-on point to fill the hole.

    Soon after that, Marshall bolted for the NBA, forcing Paige to take the reins from Day 1. The freshman had a bit of a rough start, but continued to progress as the season wore on.

    When he got better, so did the team.

    This time around, the Paige we saw at the end of the season should be the Paige we see from the jump as a sophomore—possibly even better.

    Paige has been working with Roy Williams' best former point guards over the summer and packing on much-needed pounds. He is up to 171 pounds now, hoping to reach 175 by the fall.

    That's almost 20 pounds, which will make a big difference fighting through screens and scoring in the paint. Expect to see more of those pretty floaters he was dropping at the end of last season.

    You can also expect a much better shooting performance from deep. Paige couldn't hit anything for a good half of the season, but as he got more comfortable running the offense, his shots started falling. He was 20-of-45 behind the arc in his final 12 games.

    Confidence tends to have an impact on performance.

    Paige will be better, bigger and more confident next season. He will finally bring consistency back to the point guard position at Chapel Hill.

1. P.J. Hairston

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    There isn't a single player on this squad deadlier than P.J. Hairston. Whenever he stepped on the floor last season, Carolina started producing points and popping off big plays.

    It wasn't just about Hairston's scoring ability—though, he led the team with 14.6 points per game—it was also the fire and passion with which he played. The sophomore gave the team an instant shot of adrenaline with every steal, every block and every ridiculously deep three.

    Eventually, Roy Williams couldn't keep Hairston on the bench. With the centers failing to produce, he switched to a small lineup that slotted Hairston as the starting 4.

    Even though his natural position is shooting guard, Hairston still racked up 18 points per game as a starter last season. The Tar Heels were no longer an easy win.

    And that was just with three-point shooting and some strong dribble-drives straight to the rack.

    As a junior, Hairston is expected to improve his mid-range game with the floater and some pull-up jumpers at the least. With his stroke, finding a comfort zone in the middle of the court shouldn't be an issue.

    The only concerns are how much time he has been able to devote to basketball with everything that has happened this summer and how much he will actually play—if at all.

    According to athletic director Billy Cunningham, via ESPN, he will play this season, "but not all the games."

    It may be a while before we find out how much Hairston has developed. But when he hits the floor, it won't take long to realize how truly indispensable he is.