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Early January Basketball Roundtable

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Three games into ACC play and a 11-2 non-conference slate in the books, the THB staff talks about Brice Johnson's big night and the possible return of Kennedy Meeks

Brian: UNC had one speed bump in December with the two point loss at Texas otherwise the Tar Heels finished December 7-1 and is off to only the third 3-0 ACC start in Roy Williams tenure. But before we get to that.

Brice Johnson gave UNC a historical performance that has him being mentioned in the same breath with Billy Cunningham. The question is how much money did he make for himself last night?

Chris: Potentially, a lot. I don’t think last night, per se, will move him into the 1st Round, but it will cause an awful lot of people to reset their views on him and start fresh. And in doing so, I think three things will really work in Johnson’s favor:

1. His defensive rebounding. Johnson has always been very good on the defensive boards, but this season he’s been off the charts. His 32% DR rate has been discussed before, but it really can’t be mentioned enough how great that is.

2. His free-throw shooting. Bigs who can get defensive boards and hit free-throws as at a high rate are very valuable, especially to teams who run a perimeter-oriented offense.

3. He’s played his best against UNC’s best competition. He’s been great against everyone, but against top-50 teams, he’s been out of this world, with an ORtg of 144.2 and shooting 71.4% from the field.

Doc: I'm not sure how much money he made Monday night if he can't keep it going with some consistency. The same questions that have dogged him in college will dog him at the next level, which is his consistency and his motor. Everyone from Roy Williams to Marcus Paige has said he can be the beast we saw in Tallahassee. Of course it was just two games ago he only scored 3 points. And he still needs to channel his emotions and avoid the head-scratching fouls but he will be the kind of player that has that magical "upside"

Paul: He's definitely booked a trip to Las Vegas for summer league, and he'll get serious looks from teams with chances to play against at least fringe NBA competition. As per his draft stock, I dont think he's in the top thirty five yet. He'll need a couple more 20-10s to move into definite second rounder status or he could get there if he gets his free throw percentage to at least 80%. His problem is that no ones quite sure if he can guard NBA fives yet, and if he can't do that then he needs to be able to hit 3s to have an NBA career. I'm not worried about his fouls as much because that can be fixed with coaching, and in the NBA he wouldn't play enough minutes for those stupid fouls to get him into foul trouble.

Chris: And there’s always the wild-card of who does or doesn’t enter. Right now, DraftExpress is projecting 16 freshmen and internationals in the first round, with Brice sitting at 15 in the second. If Brice continues an All-American campaign, and some of those 16 don’t enter (along with others ahead of him like Meeks and/or Jackson), then all of a sudden he could find himself in the back of the 1st-round, almost by default. And starting one’s career with the Spurs/Warriors may be the BEST way to really make a bunch of money...

Brian: Shifting gears. It looks like Kennedy Meeks will return versus Saturday. That should be a plus since they could use his passing acumen against the Orange zone.

While people will focus on whether this impacts Brice Johnson, the larger discussion is how much it impacts Isaiah Hicks minutes. I touched on this in a recent post, Hicks is playing approximately 3 more minutes per game without Meeks than with him. How is this going to work? Does Joel James and Luke Maye getting bare minimum minutes solve the issue or does Meeks see a couple of minutes less?

Paul: I would ease Meeks back into the game, I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't break 20 minutes per game for the rest of the season. Williams isn't happy with Hicks on the defensive glass so I'd expect his minutes to go down in favor of Meeks. My question is will this completely dissuade Williams from going small for the rest of the season? Hasn't Heels offense has destroyed worlds when they've gone small? I'm worried that in games where the Heels need to go small Williams tries to find which two bigs work until its too late to salvage a key game by going small.

Doc: We have been talking about the usual Roy Williams move of trimming the rotation as we get deeper into the season, but on the other hand James stepped into Meeks' starting slot. My initial thought is that we will see much less of James and Maye, especially into February. I also expect Meeks to make up his time with minutes from Hicks as well. Probably Saturday we will see Meeks at less than 20 minutes as he gets back into game shape but I wouldn't expect that to be the norm going forward.

Meeks' absence has forced Roy to look at some different things. Given Meeks' passing acumen, I would be interested to see him with the small lineup. My hope is that Brice Johnson will continue the level of focus he has had the past few weeks while working Meeks back up to full speed.

Brian: Roy doesn't strike me to be nearly as stubborn as he may have been in the past. We have seen changes in everything from recruiting to use of zone defenses to small lineups. Last season against Boston College, Meeks played 12 minutes because Roy said the smaller lineup was a better match-up(Meeks didn't start that game either for other reasons)  I think he is more willing to play the match-ups during the game even if he doesn't alter the starting lineup. Then again the focus is always on who starts when in reality the bigger deal is if you are on the court when the game is being decided. 

Chris: I don’t think the playing time will end up being a huge issue. Meeks will likely take a few games to play himself back into “game shape,” which should allow the transition to be smooth. I think we’ll eventually get to the point where 70 of the 80 minutes are played by Johnson/Meeks/Hicks, with the other 10 divided amongst the “others” (including small lineups, when needed). The bigger thing I’m interested to see is how much of an impact Meeks will make on the defensive end. UNC had a DE over 100 in 5 of the 7 games he missed, after doing so in only 4 of the first 9 games with Meeks in the lineup.