UNC Basketball: Biggest Improvements Needed for the Top Returning Tar Heels

Doug BrodessCorrespondent ISeptember 4, 2014

UNC Basketball: Biggest Improvements Needed for the Top Returning Tar Heels

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    North Carolina is getting ready for what could be another special college basketball season. Head coach Roy Williams has as much talent and depth as just about any program in the country. 

    And yet there is room for improvement from the top to the bottom of the Tar Heels roster.

    Lets look at the biggest areas of improvement needed for the top returning players who will suit up for UNC in 2014-15. 


    Player stats and team information provided by ESPN.com.

Stilman White: Recapture 2012 NCAA Tournament Magic

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    Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

    Sophomore Stilman White is back on the UNC roster after a two-year Mormon mission.

    The last time Tar Heels fans saw the 6'0" point guard in action was in the 2012 NCAA tournament. White was launched into a starting role after Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist in Carolina's round-of-32 game against Creighton.

    White responded with rock-solid floor leadership in March Madness games against Ohio (Sweet 16) and Kansas (Elite Eight). During his 60 minutes of playing time, he scored six points, dished out 13 assists and did not commit any turnovers.

    Because he has not played competitive-level basketball in two years, White will have to work hard to get back to where he was in 2012.

    However, White's high basketball IQ will speed this process up considerably as he looks to add experience and depth to North Carolina's backcourt. 

Jackson Simmons: Further Establish Himself as a Defensive Specialist

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Every coach at any level loves to have players like Jackson Simmons on his roster. He works hard, plays hard and fills whatever role he is asked to play.

    Though Simmons has only averaged a little over five minutes of playing time over his 87 games in a Tar Heel uniform, he has proved that he is not fearful of getting in and mixing it up down low. 

    The 6'7" senior forward is known for diving on the floor for loose balls and sacrificing his body to take charges. When he gets on the court, Simmons immediately makes things happen on the defensive end.

    While more playing time this year looks doubtful, Simmons' biggest value to this team will be in ramping up his no-nonsense approach to the game as he looks to be a stubborn stopper against opposing teams' frontcourt players.   

Joel James and Desmond Hubert: Fully Leverage Their Huge Size

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Junior Joel James and senior Desmond Hubert have something that no coach can teach: size. They are the two tallest players on the 2014-15 Tar Heels' roster, both standing 6'10".

    While James has the bigger body (weighing in at around 280 lbs), both post players should be able to consistently use their sheer hugeness to patrol the paint and bang on the boards.

    At times, they have defended well and rebounded effectively. Unfortunately, neither has regularly played the role of enforcer and rim protector that head coach Roy Williams anticipated when he brought them to Chapel Hill.

    With the arrival and emergence of Kennedy Meeks, James and Hubert have been relegated to coming off the bench, but the Heels still need them to be ready to provide quality minutes on the block.

    Getting them both to "play big" is a major key to keeping UNC's opponents out of the lane and off the glass. 


Isaiah Hicks: Go from Tentative to Tenacious

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Sophomore Isaiah Hicks played most of his first year in Chapel Hill out of position. Rather than setting up at power forward like he did throughout his dynamic high school career, Hicks played most of his freshman season on the wing. 

    Playing out of position, he appeared to be uncertain and hesitant, hiding his natural agility and athleticism.

    For the 2014-15 season, Hicks will move back to the 4. Instead of a tentative Tar Heel, head coach Roy Williams expects to see a determined Hicks assert himself closer to the basket. 

    CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein recently tweeted, "Buy stock in UNC's Isaiah Hicks. Will make a MAJOR jump as a sophomore. Forced to play out of position last season. Put up #'s in Bahamas."

    Speaking of Hicks' performance this summer in the Bahamas, Inside Carolina's Greg Barnes mentioned:

    Hicks scored 13 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the first game and followed that performance up with 19 points on 8-of-14 shooting 24 hours later. The Oxford, N.C. native pulled down five and seven rebounds, respectively, and was credited with three offensive rebounds in each contest.

    While Hicks is likely to come off the bench to start the season, he will have the chance to make a big impact on this year's squad by being physical on the block. 

Nate Britt: Improve His Outside Shooting

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Not everyone would take the approach that Nate Britt is using to improve his mediocre shooting numbers from his freshman season. After connecting on only 36.7 percent of his field goals and 25 percent of his three-pointers, Britt decided to change from shooting left-handed to hoisting his attempts with his right.

    While this would be nearly impossible for many, Britt's ambidexterity has allowed him to shoot with either hand in the past.

    CBS Sports' Jeff Borzello talked to Steve Turner, Britt's high school coach, who said, "Up through middle school, he shot the ball with both hands. A lot of people will tell you he's going to be a better right-handed shooter. Watch his body. It's more fluid, his body his more square to the basket. I'm predicting his percentages all go up."

    A talented incoming freshman class featuring Justin Jackson and Joel Berry will immediately push for perimeter minutes. Though he logged nearly 21 minutes per game last year as a freshman, Britt will need to become a more proficient shooter to get on the court.


Brice Johnson: Shift from Being a Restricted Reserve to an All-Around Starter

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Power forward Brice Johnson has made good progress over his first two years at UNC. He has made efficient use of his playing time, providing a scoring punch and rebounding bump off the bench.

    Last season as a sophomore, he averaged 10.3 PPG and 6.1 RPG while only logging 19.4 minutes per game.

    As he enters his junior campaign, the 6'9" frontcourt dealer will have the challenge/opportunity of carrying a more primary role in the Tar Heels attack. 

    Every college player longs for the day when he goes from coming off the bench to being a starter. But not every player makes this transition seamlessly. For Johnson to take the next step in his collegiate career, he will need to make serious upgrades on his role as a low-post defender.

    During last season, ESPN's C.L. Brown stated that the "Heels need a more defensive Brice Johnson." He shared Williams' words, who made it clear what would help Johnson reach his full potential: "He’s got a long way to go. He can block a shot, but he’s got to get down in his stance and keep working, keep working and keep working. You don’t want to be a player who just helps his team on the offensive end of the floor."

    If Johnson steps up his defensive game, the sky is the limit for him and North Carolina. He will not only become a team leader but one of the foremost power forwards in the ACC.

J.P. Tokoto: Develop a Shooting Touch

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    As J.P. Tokoto moved into the Tar Heels' starting lineup last year, he demonstrated his ability to be a lockdown defender and a highlight-reel dunker.

    The 6'5" wing was selected to the 2014 Coaches All-ACC Defensive Team. Because of his length and agility, Tokoto could check any of the perimeter positions. He led the Tar Heels last season in steals with 55.

    When he got loose in transition or in a half-court set, the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin native was ready to throw down a mind-blowing dunk.

    With all of his athleticism and versatility, Tokoto has one serious defect in his game: outside shooting. As a sophomore, he shot a frigid 50 percent (49-for-98) from the line and 22.2 percent from beyond the arc (8-for-36). 

    As brutal as those numbers are, they represent an improvement over his freshman stats. In his first year in Chapel Hill, Tokoto shot 38.5 percent (10-for-26) for his freebies and 9.1 percent (1-for-11) from downtown.

    If Tokoto does not improve in these basic shooting areas, it could cost him playing time this year. With a talented freshman group arriving, Williams has a number of options from which he can choose.


Kennedy Meeks: Increase His Explosiveness Around the Basket

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    One of the big stories of the Tar Heels offseason is the remaking of Kennedy Meeks.

    NBC Sports' Raphielle Johnson reported that the 6'9" sophomore has "lost some 45 pounds since the end of the season."

    Even though he uses his body well for a big man, Meeks needs to become more explosive around the basket. Many times last season, Meeks got the ball down low but was unable to finish many scoring opportunities because he lacked the ability to make a quick move and then elevate to the rim.

    While he still may not be able to blast to the bucket, if Meeks is quicker on his feet and off the floor he will be tough to handle in the paint in 2014-15.

Marcus Paige: Boost His Distribution Skills

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    Last year, Marcus Paige was one of the top guards in the country and most improved players in college basketball. ESPN's Seth Greenberg stated (Insider subscription required) that Paige "has developed into an elite "ball guard."

    He more than doubled his offensive output from his freshman season, scoring 17.5 PPG as a sophomore. Paige led the team in multiple categories and was a big reason why the Tar Heels were in the ACC race.

    With all of his offensive talents and triumphs, Paige has room to improve in his assist-to-turnover ratio. For his first two seasons in Chapel Hill, the 6'1" guard had less than a 2-to-1 ratio.

    That's not horrible. He could be doing worse. Paige does not commit a ton of turnovers (2.1 TPG in 2013-14). But he also doesn't dish out a bunch of assists (4.2 APG last season). 

    Some might consider this nitpicking. Others would say that Paige would do better at distributing if he did not have to shoulder a significant scoring burden.

    However, if Paige is going to be considered one of the premier floor leaders in the country, he should have at least three times as many assists as he does turnovers.