Brice Johnson took his All-American talent and went to the NBA as Roy Williams’ 16th UNC-bred first round draft pick. Joel James took his game, his smile, and his gif/meme producing skills halfway across the world to Japan. Those gentlemen gave four great years to Chapel Hill. Their contributions will never be forgotten. In Brice’s case, his jersey will forever hang in the rafters In Chapel Hill.
Fortunately, the Heels return plenty of talent in the front court, and welcome a few new faces as well. Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, and Luke Maye return this year, ready to improve on last season’s efforts. Joining them is highly touted Tony Bradley, a 5-star McDonald’s All-American who ESPN ranked at the 17th best player in the nation. All four players possess strikingly different skill sets, yet all have a role in UNC’s systems this year. Daniel Bayer and I touched on this yesterday in the Tar Heel Blog’s brand new podcast. (And if Daniel ever invites me again, I promise to talk more slowly.)
In Part 1 of our UNC Post Player Preview, I’ll go more in-depth on what fans can expect from Luke Maye and Tony Bradley. Tomorrow we’ll do the same for Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks.
Luke Maye: SO, 6-8, 235
2015-2016 stats: 32 games, 5.6mpg, 1.2ppg, 1.7rpg, 36.4% FG, 42.9% FT
What to expect: The most surprising stat that popped out was that Maye played in 32 games last year. He brings more game experience than most probably realize or remember. That should not be understated or underestimated and will be valuable when the conference season begins. Luke Maye is going to see the court, and I do not doubt that he will be on the floor for some important (positive!) UNC moments this season.
If some of you are rolling your eyes at the thought of such a naive remark, I would like to present a case study. I’d ask every fan to recall that as a freshman Isaiah Hicks played in 34 games, averaged 7.3 minutes per game, 1.2 points per game, and 1.0 rebounds per game as a freshman. As a sophomore Hicks averaged 14.7 minutes per game, 6.6 points per game, and 3 rebounds per game. This season, everyone expects Hicks to be the second-coming of Brice Johnson. Scoff at Luke’s potential at your own risk.
There is one major caveat to these numbers, and that is Hicks and Maye possess wildly different skill sets. Maye currently lacks many of the attributes that Hicks possesses. He is not as athletic or explosive, doesn’t have great length, nor is he as powerful/strong as Hicks. So, I am NOT proposing that Maye is the next Isaiah Hicks. At the most, Luke’s average playing time is likely capped at no more than 10 minutes a game this season.
I just wanted to point out that UNC and Roy Williams have a weird way of developing players, especially in the post. By weird, I mean wildly successful, regardless of the talent level of the player. With one less post player in the rotation this year, I expect the same for Luke. This season fans should see that improvement.
If there is one thing Roy Williams really admires and rewards, it is smart men who understand how to play the game while giving maximum effort. If you can grab a few rebounds, dive on the floor, and find the occasional loose ball, Ol’ Roy is going to get you on the court. If a player contributes a little on offense, then that’s just gravy. Luke Maye possesses all those attributes.
Fortunately, Maye is more than just the stereotypical “energy” guy off the bench. As the likely fourth option in the post, his ability to step out and hit the long jumper or three will provide him a possible niche in UNC’s system. It’s hard to find a rhythm in just over five minutes a game, and often his role last season required a different focus on the court, so the opportunities to show his range was limited. (Although, he DID hit more threes than Kenny Williams. There’s a hot take for you).
However, with 32 games under his figurative belt, I look forward to Luke seeing an increase in minutes, opportunities, and recognition for a unique skill set that most UNC post-players have not had. This may be even more true with Theo Pinson out until at least mid-December. If Maye can prove to be a respectable outside threat, he may provide more of a mismatch at the 4 spot than sliding Justin Jackson down to the 4, as has been discussed.
At 6-8, 235 Luke Maye has the potential to be the first true inside-outside threat (no matter how minimal) in quite some time. He doesn’t have the polish or post skills to play with his back to the basket (yet), so he’s likely to see most of his playing time at the 4 for UNC. But, if he can knock down a few jump shots and grab 2 or 3 rebounds a game, he would be a pleasant surprise this season. If that happens, UNC fans will have plenty of reasons to be optimistic when March rolls around.
Tony Bradley: FR, 6-10, 240
2015-2016 Stats: McDonald’s All-American, ESPN100 ranked him as 17th best player in nation
What To Expect: Tony Bradley may be the most anticipated UNC freshman since Marcus Paige or even Harrison Barnes. While that may seem blasphemous or hyperbolic, it should not be a surprise. After a (necessary) underwhelming 2015 recruiting class, and watching top, in-state talent flee to Lexington and Durham as the NCAA has hovered over Chapel Hill, fans see Bradley as the band-aid to stop the bleeding. As such, some have hopes he flourishes into the next great UNC big man as soon as this year.
Let’s pump the breaks on those expectations, and remember that he’s still 18 years old and has a long season ahead of him. However, Tony Bradley is going to see the court quite a bit. Boasting a 7’4” wing span, Bradley (like Maye) possesses a skill set that none of the post players have displayed. His length on the defensive end and ability to score with either hand while playing with his back to the basket brings a different dimension to both ends of the court for UNC.
If there is one skill that’s been missing in recent years for UNC’s big men, it has been the ability to have a truly polished, back-to-the-basket post player. Brice’s high energy, rebounding, and second chance points made him effective. Kennedy hasn’t shown the explosiveness or rim-awareness necessary for consistent success. JMM liked to step out to 15 feet. John Henson maximized his length, but was never big enough to really bang in the paint. Maybe a case could be made for Tyler Zeller being the last back-to-the basket post player in Chapel Hill, and even that is debatable. That changes when Bradley gets on the court.
However, the most promising attribute he may have is an aggressiveness that often escapes freshman big men. Early season reports have floated around the internet that Bradley has not been afraid to attack Hicks, Meeks, and Maye during practices. Nate Britt touched on that in this article by Inside Carolina. That’s a trait that’s hard to teach and necessary for success, specifically as a freshman.
Roy has a history of imploring his big men to be aggressive, show effort, and not take any possessions off. Whether it was Sean May, John Henson, and Brice Johnson in the past, or Kennedy Meeks this season. While it remains to see if Meeks can finally unleash his inner beast, the trio of Henson/May/Johnson answered the call of Roy’s wrath and left Chapel Hill as some of the most memorable players to ever wear Carolina Blue. If an aggression is already present in Tony Bradley, and it’s being noticed by his teammates, then the future is promising. Additionally, actively attacking Hicks and Meeks in practice should prevent any complacency to set in with the two seniors.
So, where does Tony fit into this season’s team? It’s fair to assume he’s the third post option, but whereas Luke Maye is likely to see most of his time at the 4, Bradley can play either post position. His length and (sneaky) ability to run the floor makes him the perfect back-up to Isaiah Hicks and complement to Kennedy Meeks. Especially on the defensive end, where a few opponents will see their shots end up in the bleachers after Bradley swats it away. There will be a few fast breaks that start with a Tony Bradley rebound or block and end with a Tony Bradley lay-up or dunk.
Or, if the situation allows, UNC could go with a twin towers scenario, playing Hicks and Bradley alongside each other. That has the potential to be a devastating combination when the calendar turns to February. If that happens, fans will enjoy a few fast breaks that start with a Bradley block and end with a Hicks layup or dunk. (Who are we kidding? If it’s Hicks, we all know he’s dunking as hard as he possibly can).
Using history as a guide, and Roy’s willingness to play freshmen post players (hint: he’s very willing), Bradley can probably expect about 15 minutes a game. Although, don’t be surprised to see those numbers increase in the early parts of the season. I’d suspect Theo’s absence forces UNC to play more of a traditional two-post player rotation than they had hoped initially. As I wrote last week, that would likely mean more minutes for Bradley, maybe even approaching the 20-minute range, depending on Meeks’ efforts and Hicks’ propensity to foul. Those variables remain legitimate questions heading into the season.
Both Luke Maye and Tony Bradley should see increased minutes early in the season. A thin front court was already going to provide plenty of chances, but Theo’s injury opened a huge door of opportunity for some extra playing time or line-up combinations. That increased time will prove necessary when January rolls around, and the grind of an ACC season begins to take it’s toll.
With Meeks’ injury history, and not knowing how Hicks will adapt to a starting role, there are likely going to some bumps in the road. That happens, and it shouldn't be a surprise. Luke and Tony will hear their names called in order to fill the void. Just don’t be surprised when they deliver.