Heading into this season, there was a fair amount of debate on who would start at center for the Tar Heels. Through nine games, we might be closer to knowing who the best option is though it is still a murky issue. Among the three candidates, no one has completely won the job with strengths and deficiencies in different areas that make sorting out the starter in the middle a tough task. With just four games left before ACC play, here is how the two freshman and lone sophomore have looked manning UNC's interior.
Joel James, 16.6 mpg, 4.1 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 55% FG
The upside with Joel James is his size. He is strong, big and a load for any opposing defense to handle. The downside is James is incredibly raw and has not enjoyed the years of experience playing basketball that his teammates benefited from. To quote Yoda, James has much to learn. On one hand that means the sky is potentially the limit with this kid. You cannot teach his size and his commitment shown in getting his conditioning and weight in order are huge pluses. He should enjoy a nice upward trajectory in his development. The problem for UNC is there is a great need to see James do more now. James has been a solid rebounder with almost 5 per game in only 16 mpg. The rest of his game needs quite a bit of polish before James becomes a truly effective player.
Desmond Hubert, 10.1 mpg, 1.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 50% FG
It was assumed from the moment Desmond Hubert signed with UNC he would be a project of sorts. With size and great length, Hubert gave UNC a body in practice to go against Tyler Zeller and John Henson. It was hoped that playing behind two NBA-bound big men and against them in practice, it would help Hubert develop his game. That has not happened and while WIlliams opted to start the sophomore in some of the first games of the season, it was clear Hubert was not quite ready to be a serious contributor. At this point Hubert is providing spot minutes. He has moments of solid play and at other times is a non-factor. Hubert's defense and understanding of what Williams wants has put him in the starting lineup but that has not lasted nor did it beyond one half in most games UNC played. Barring in tremendous leaps forward in his overall progress as a player, Hubert does not seem likely to reenter the starting lineup especially since his experience edge is eroding with every game under the freshmen''s belts.
Brice Johnson, 14.1 mpg, 9.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 64% FG
UNC's decision on who to start could be easily solved if Joel James and Brice Johnson could be merged. James is a better rebounder but lacks Johnson's polish on the offensive end. Johnson, on the other hand, can score but his lack of size and strength make rebounding and defense a tougher task. Johnson is averaging 9.4 ppg despite only playing 14 mpg and hitting a whopping 64% of his shots. His lightweight frame and ridiculous FG% has many dropping Brandan Wright's name as a point of comparison. Johnson is not Wright however, his offensive game has been a nice surprise. On the defensive end, he can be pushed around which may hurt his rebounding against bigger players simply because Johnson cannot dominate his position on the floor. And while those are valid concerns it is difficult to ignore how well Johnson has performed on the offensive end.
The overarching question for all three players, but mainly for Johnson, is how the acclimation to ACC play will change their production. Feasting on Chaminade or East Tennessee State is vastly different than seeing Duke, Maryland and the like. Conventional wisdom says Johnson will struggled with ACC teams since his size can be matched and the play will be more physical. James could certainly handle the latter but concerns about his offensive game in the face of better defenses are not going to go away unless James proves otherwise.
At this stage we are still talking about the fifth offensive option on the floor. The importance of UNC's center is a little different than previous seasons. The absence of a significant offensive prowess on the interior has made for an interesting Roy Williams-coached team. There is more perimeter focus which takes some pressure off the five spot, especially if the smaller lineup is used since James Michael McAdoo becomes the only true interior scoring threat. That is not to say Johnson or James or Hubert aren't huge cogs in the current team. They are and as such, I would expect the time splitting to continue but would not be surprised if Johnson gets a slight edge, especially if he can make strides on defensive end. Whatever the case, James and Johnson both are oozing with potential and if they both pan out, give UNC's some nice pieces to work with in this season and the next.
Note: Changed a sentence in the Brice Johnson section to remove a questionable assertion.