With sixteen games in the books and fifteen to go in the regular season let's take a look at how the individual players have fared so far starting with the centers.
Brice Johnson is a tale of two ends of the floor. On the offensive end he is easily UNC's most reliable interior scorer. Johnson hits 52.9% of his shots and is averaging 21 points per 40 minutes. He still lacks the size and strength to impose his will against bigger defenders but as far as scoring options go, Johnson is productive. The defensive end is a different story. Johnson has his troubles with rotations, guarding his man and fails to box out. Johnson could very well lead the team in being subbed out for Jackson Simmons, a.k.a. the emissary of Roy Williams' displeasure.
The issues on defense results in much less playing time for Johnson despite the fact he can be really effective on the offensive end. In many ways, he could be the solution at center for UNC or at the very least see the court more often than he does. Which is a shame considering Johnson can bring some intangibles to the court. He plays with a lot of energy not to mention is one of the few players on this team that plays with a bit of an edge at times. Coming off the bench Johnson can provide a shot in the arm for the offense meaning it really doesn't matter who starts at center.
For Johnson the proposition is simple. He needs to be a more complete player on both ends so he can stay on the court. His offensive value is far too high for UNC to waste possession without him on the court providing a legitimate scoring threat on the interior. Granted he won't always be effective. The game against Syracuse was a clear case where the match-up was an issue. Likewise there will be upcoming ACC opponents whose interior defense will be problematic for the sophomore big man. That being said, UNC needs offense, as much offense as they can get from anywhere they can get it. A consistent Brice Johnson gives them that providing he doesn't give those points back on the other end.
Like Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks can be effective on the offensive end but also very much a liability on the defensive end. Meeks has played well at times proving to be a key contributor in two of UNC's three biggest wins. In the win over Louisville, Meeks had 13 points and 12 rebounds for his first double-double of the season. He followed that up with 15 points and seven rebound when UNC knocked off Michigan State. Since then Meeks has only scored in double-digits two other times though he has impacted the game in other ways such as his inbound passing against Kentucky.
Meeks' primary issue at this stage of his first college season is his physical limitations have created a ceiling he simply may not be able to break through. Meeks has done a fair amount of work on his conditioning and weight going from 315 to under 290 since arriving at UNC last summer. Obviously he needs to continue develop his body which includes not only losing weight but adding some strength, explosiveness and some inches to his vertical jump. That kind of development really cannot happen during the season. In short, Meeks is stuck where he is in terms of physical development.
That doesn't mean he can't be effective because he's proven his value in some games this season. His offensive numbers are very good and his basketball skills are well ahead of Joel James and even Brice Johnson. Like Johnson, Meeks has to improve on the defensive end to stay on the court. He also needs to pick his spots offensively though that can be difficult since Roy Williams runs his offense through the post which makes Meeks a central cog when he is in the game.
Meeks' potential is undeniable and according to Williams, Sean May has been sharing his experiences at UNC which include being at a similar stage as Meeks is now. Meeks might not become Sean May but he should end up being a reliable interior scoring option. For this season however, there will continue to be limits to what Meeks can do.
Joel James is the polar opposite of Meeks and Johnson, in more ways that one. James has the size and muscle Johnson doesn't and is at a level of physical shape that you hope Meeks can get to one day. He also offers more on the defensive end than the other pair. The problem is James is still pretty raw on the offensive end. Relatively speaking he is also inexperienced in the game having only been playing since 10th grade. Right now he doesn't possess the basketball instincts and skills to work withing the normal execution of the offense. As a result James hasn't really made an impact this season. He scores here and there, rebounds fairly well with 14 per 40 minutes but beyond that James is on the floor for his defense and rebounding over his offense.
The defensive end is where James has made his biggest impact especially in the context of hedging on screens at the top of the key. James does a much better job than his fellow Tar Heel centers of hedging then recovering to his man. Both Meeks(who is too slow) and Johnson(who simply doesn't execute it well) do not tend to handle that aspect of UNC's team defense particularly well. Overall, James provides a better defensive option.
The biggest issue for UNC in this arrangement there will always be a deficiency on the court. None of the three primary centers have "won" the job by being solid on both ends. Until one of them takes a step up, UNC will continue to rely on the hope that they can get the right plays from the right players.
Another key stat regarding Desmond Hubert.
Complaints about his playing time by UNC fans: Eleventy billion
To put it succinctly, Roy Williams sees value in Hubert. It is not clear to most fans what that is other than he believes Hubert to be a solid defender. In fact, Hubert's play is apparently sufficient enough for Williams that he was willing to bring him off the bench against Miami before either Johnson or Meeks saw the floor. Hubert falls into the category of that player who does things well from an execution standpoint even if he doesn't produce much.
The bottom line on Hubert is he will probably continue to play and the reason is the same reason Jackson Simmons sees the court which is other, more talented players, haven't done enough to secure their spot. So the next time Hubert checks into the game, frustration really shouldn't be directed at him. He is doing everything asked of him to the best of his limited abilities. The issue isn't even with Roy Williams but with players who keep coming up short in certain facets of the game. If those players can fix those issues, there is less need to roll the dice with Hubert save for the purpose of getting some rest.