UNC Basketball: Projecting Tar Heels' 2014-15 Rotation

Todd Salem@@sportspinataContributor IIIJanuary 31, 2014

UNC Basketball: Projecting Tar Heels' 2014-15 Rotation

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    When looking ahead and projecting a lineup for the following season, there are a number of mitigating factors at play. Besides projecting who will play best together, who will make strides in their games and which players make up the optimal lineup, it is also of paramount importance to determine who will actually be in school.

    The seniors on the current team who will be gone for the 2014-15 season are as follows:

    Leslie McDonald

    James Manor

    Denzel Robinson

    Wade Moody

    Of those guys, only McDonald was any kind of major contributor. Other than the seniors, there also remains the possibility that any draft-eligible players will leave school early and enter the NBA draft. 

    That seems unlikely for nearly everyone on the Tar Heels' roster at this point, with the possible exception of James Michael McAdoo. McAdoo has been on draft radars for three years now, with his stock taking a hit in the past year. However, he still remains one of the most talented power forwards in the conference with his ability to work out of the post, handle the ball and shoot. He has also picked up his defense this season, blocking shots at a much higher rate than any other year of his career.

    If McAdoo does decide to leave school after his junior year and enter the NBA, he will be a borderline first-round pick. However, with the crop of incoming forwards and the talent remaining on this roster, he would also not be guaranteed a starting spot if he were to return.

    In a Herald Sun article from last season when McAdoo made his decision to return, he cited his enjoyment of college life and how he wanted to do that for another season. Purely speculative, his junior year may not be going as smoothly as he would have hoped, and who knows if that joy still remains.

    I'm guessing he will finally decide to leave after years of will-he-won't-he. Along with McDonald, the departure of McAdoo would make up at least two starting spots to fill for next season. However, other changes will be necessary as well.

Starting Point Guard

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    Joel Berry

    Joel Berry will come to UNC next season as a 5-star recruit and one of the very best point guards in the country, according to ESPN Recruiting Nation.

    At 6 feet tall, he is hardly an imposing figure, yet ESPN scouting reports tab him as a prolific penetrator and finisher with an advanced game for his age.

    Compared with Nate Britt, this season's freshman point guard who started for much of the season prior to conference play, Berry sounds like much more of a floor leader. Britt is not able to control an offense or impose his will on any situation. His poor shooting ability and shaky ball control relegated him to the bench in favor of Leslie McDonald after the turn of the calendar year.

    Berry should be a welcome addition to North Carolina's starting lineup if he is able to step in as a freshman leader.

    While Britt was a 4-star recruit out of high school, his freshman season at Carolina has been underwhelming at best in terms of him being capable of running an offense. His on-ball defense is solid though, making him an asset as a backup off the bench.

Starting Shooting Guard

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    Marcus Paige

    This one is a no-brainer.

    Unless Marcus Paige shocks everyone and leaves early for the NBA draft in an attempt to capitalize on his impressive sophomore season, he will surely return as a starting guard for North Carolina in 2014-15.

    The only question would be whether he fits better as the point guard or the 2-guard. With the incoming addition of such a highly touted point guard as Berry, it would seem that the best fit for the Heels overall is to put Paige at the 2.

    He has shown he is perfectly capable of playing shooting guard. His dominance of UNC's three-point attempts shows he has the range and ability to pick apart opposing defenses. In fact, Paige was excelling for much of the non-conference season starting at the off-guard spot with Nate Britt playing point.

    With the return and eventual ascension of Leslie McDonald into the starting rotation, Paige got bumped back to point guard, where he began to struggle. Coinciding with the commencement of ACC play, Paige's shot has been failing him for more than a month now.

    He simply seems more comfortable and plays better in the shooting guard spot, for whatever reason. His assist numbers haven't really been affected by the switch either, as the game log shows.

    Playing Paige at the 2 gives Carolina multiple ball-handlers as well and leaves defenses in a bind when pressing or trapping.

Starting Small Forward

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    Justin Jackson

    Occasionally, it is debilitating to a roster to start two freshmen. North Carolina especially has had less than stellar luck in recent seasons with production from highly touted freshmen. However, Justin Jackson is the best small forward option for this team next season.

    Like Berry, Jackson is a 5-star talent who, along with Berry and fellow UNC recruit Theo Pinson, was just named to the McDonald's All-American team for 2014.

    At 6'7" and 185 pounds, Jackson is tall and slender. He needs to add some strength to his frame but will come to college with an advanced offensive game in tow. ESPN scouting marks him as a special wing player who has the capability to slide in at the shooting guard position as well.

    This is a welcome sign for Tar Heel fans everywhere. Having gone through an entire season of having no shooting threats in the backcourt other than Marcus Paige, Jackson will be a welcome addition.

    J.P. Tokoto has started at the small forward spot all year for UNC. However, he is not a helpful enough player to warrant such a title for the coming season. His offensive game is nearly nonexistent, other than the occasional dunk.

    On defense, Tokoto is a useful weapon for coach Roy Williams but, again, not enough of one to warrant starting over a more uniquely talented player like Jackson. Bringing Tokoto off the bench as an energy/hustle player who can come in, grab rebounds, get stops and make a few plays seems like his destiny anyway. 

Starting Power Forward

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    Isaiah Hicks

    With the proposed departure of McAdoo, the starting power forward spot will come down to a battle between Isaiah Hicks and Brice Johnson.

    While Hicks has been a nonentity this season for Carolina, he still has a good pedigree. Hicks actually came to Chapel Hill as a 5-star recruit out of high school, as opposed to Johnson's 4-star mark. (Although Brice garnered a higher grade for some reason. If someone could please explain in the comments how that works, I would greatly appreciate it.)

    What this decision really comes down to is the known versus the unknown. We know and are aware of what Johnson offers on the basketball court. He is a great leaper and finisher. He is probably the most skilled Tar Heel in the post as well. However, he doesn't play great defense and doesn't bring his focus and attention to every possession.

    His production has also been in steep decline since the early part of the season, when he was threatening to steal McAdoo's starting spot away.

    It is hard to quantify this, and the "eye test" is always a hairy subject, but Johnson also seems like a bench player. His persona, personality and play don't give off the air of confidence on a nightly basis. Roy Williams must feel similarly as the coach has never really given Johnson any extended chance to earn a starting role.

    As for Hicks, the lack of playing time makes him intriguing. He is a great athlete. That much we know. Otherwise, his lack of maturity or knowledge of the sets have kept him from garnering many minutes this season. With another year and another offseason, it seems likely we could see a jump from Hicks similar to the jump Johnson made between his freshman and sophomore years.

    Combined with better instincts, a better defensive game and perhaps a better outlook, Hicks should be the pick at the power forward position.

Starting Center

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    Kennedy Meeks

    After Joel James claimed the starting center spot for a good two months of the 2013-14 season, Kennedy Meeks began to burrow his way into the lineup. James was really a starter in name only anyway. He played very few minutes per game and contributed little to nothing on the offensive end.

    Meeks, on the other hand, has been special as a freshman. His great hands and footwork make up for his lack of athleticism. He also seems to have a nose for rebounds, even though he never outleaps anybody for them.

    Hall of Fame center Bill Russell has a famous theory on rebounding. He says that most of the rebounds he was able to grab were because of positioning. The part of that quote that is most apropos to Meeks is when he mentions the false belief that you will always need to out jump everybody.

    Meeks has been grabbing rebounds at a high level all season long. In the last few games though, when his minutes have ticked up over 20 per game, his rebounding has not tailed off. He has grabbed 27 boards in his last three games.

    Of course, Meeks' game is more than rebounding. He is a talented passer for a big man, especially on the outlet. He has some nice moves near the hoop and is still developing.

    There is no question that Meeks is the best center option for this team in 2014-15, especially combined with the wiry and athletic Hicks in the frontcourt.


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    North Carolina will have a deep team next season. Coach Williams always uses a large rotation, but next year's squad will have reason to go nine deep every game.

    Britt, Tokoto and Johnson all come back next season with lots of experience. They each bring a different asset to a game when they enter as well.

    Britt is a point guard who can handle the ball adequately and defend his position. Tokoto is a great energy guy who will bring a spark into any game he enters. And Johnson is instant offense from the frontcourt, as he possesses a nice jump shot and good moves in the post.

    Added to the mix will also be Theo Pinson, the aforementioned McDonald's All-American and the last of UNC's 5-star recruits of 2014. 

    Pinson may be the best fit of all on this Tar Heels roster if he becomes a scoring sixth man who is in charge of the second unit's offense. The ESPN scouting report starts off by saying Pinson is comfortable being a star and is an excellent scorer in a variety of ways.

    It may be a battle between Pinson and Jackson over who actually deserves to start at small forward. Jackson's outside shooting seem to make him a better fit for this team though, while Pinson's confidence seem to put him in line to take over off the bench as the dominant scorer of the second unit.