With the Cam Johnson commitment, the 2017 Tar Heel roster is finally set. This is all following Pittsburgh and Kevin Stallings doing the right thing and releasing Johnson in order to make him eligible for this upcoming season. Now that he’s on board, here’s a look at how the lineup might shake out later this year.
Every good Roy Williams team becomes a great Roy Williams team when led by a top point guard. Despite the half-witted analysis our friends at ESPN would have you believe, this team returns one of the five best players in the country in Joel Berry. As crazy as it may sound, it is easy to forget how dominant he was when healthy during his up-and-down NCAA Tournament. A healthy Joel Berry means the absolute floor of this team is Sweet 16 caliber. High praise for a guy who apparently can’t hold up against the likes of an unstable senior with no control of his lower extremities and five people who have yet to play a second of college basketball.
The real intrigue at the point guard position comes from the development of Seventh Woods. The late Dean Smith was known to be a firm believer in the summer between a player’s freshman and sophomore years providing the greatest development. Will Woods take that leap that we’ve seen recently with Berry and Marcus Paige? Having a reliable backup at point to spell the star is a common theme on Roy Williams best teams (Melvin Scott, Quentin Thomas, Bobby Frasor, Dexter Strickland, Nate Britt).
Kenny Williams still plays for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and will possibly start at the two next year. It is easy to forget, as he missed most of the back-half of the ACC schedule with a knee injury. The key for him is confidence. He isn’t a knockdown shooter but more of a streaky one.
His offensive explosion against Davidson (must be nice to have one of those against them) bears that out. He just needs to be in a groove. A team with so many options doesn’t need him to shoot lights out every night, they need him to continue to play the defense from last year that had the staff grade him as their best perimeter defender and knock down the open shot. If he does that, it gives the Tar Heels incredible length and ability on the perimeter.
It is easy to take the idea of adding a guy like Jalek Felton for granted. He has been on a collision course with his uncle’s shadow since birth. It has always been assumed that he would come to Carolina so he almost gets under-appreciated for the talent he is. He is a legacy recruit, but also a guy who Roy Williams said might be more physically gifted than his uncle Raymond.
Jalek has drawn comparisons to talents like De’Aaron Fox. The tools are there. It just depends on him committing to defense and playing engaged at 100% effort 100% of the time. His ability to create for teammates while also being able to score in bunches gives the roster flexibility, especially when paired with a guy like Theo Pinson. Felton looks to be an off the ball combo guard but he can play point, especially if Woods doesn’t develop as quickly as expected.
If freshman to sophomore development from Seventh Woods is expected, it is only fair to expect the same from Brandon Robinson. Robinson is the anti-Kenny Williams in that confidence in taking and making the open shot is never a problem. He truly represented the on-court example of “shooters shoot” in limited time last year. It continues to be about bulking up and learning to handle the physicality of the ACC. If the physique catches up to the talent and confidence, Robinson will be a player who will surprise many around the league.
Andrew Platek has a reputation of being an excellent shooter and figures to be a valuable contributor during his time in Chapel Hill. For now, though, things are crowded on the perimeter. Roy Williams loves developing a deep bench, so he will get his chances but still figures to be a minor role player for now.
Theo Pinson returning for his senior year was just as important as Joel Berry announcing the same. He isn’t going to go out there and get 20 points a night. Some nights, Theo is going to do stuff that makes you want to spike your remote. But he will then turn around and make an exceptional play that only Pinson can make like the crucial pass to Justin Jackson for the bucket and the foul to give the team the lead for good in the title game. Or the wild, running layup against Kentucky to start the game-deciding run.
Pinson has almost become a guy that people take for granted in the sense that he is an auxiliary option in comparison to guys like Berry or Jackson. Yet the ceiling of the team is lower without him. Look at the listless performance against Miami last year without him. Or the defensive struggles against Kentucky in Las Vegas. He can play the two or slot down to a point four position that initiates offense while rebounding the position very well.
I am not saying Cam Johnson will backup Theo Pinson. In fact, I expect him to start at the three while Pinson slides down to the four. But the header says wing forwards so I have to follow the completely arbitrary but totally binding rules that I just came up with for this article.
Part of what made Johnson’s commitment so crucial was the flexibility he brings to a roster that already has a ton as is. He is a legit 6’8” in the Justin Jackson mold. He brings even more length to the perimeter on defense. Offensively, most Carolina fans remember Johnson lighting last year’s team up in the Dean Dome. Now he gets to play there at least fifteen times a year. Cam allows Pinson to be a small ball four and give Carolina a true four out-one in offensive scheme that will represent the bulk of this team’s minutes. More has been and will be written on his fit by my THB colleagues, so I will leave it at this: the addition of Johnson makes Carolina a top 10 caliber team next year.
Luke Maye is just another cog in the versatility machine that is the 2018 Tar Heels. He is a true stretch four. The key to Maye’s minutes and how Williams treats the starting lineup as a whole, is how he can handle sliding to the five. Everyone remembers his iconic shot over Kentucky in the Elite 8, but I would argue that his performance against Florida State was even more impressive.
Playing against the tallest team in the country (and taller than most NBA teams), he managed to grab fifteen rebounds. The question is if he can rebound and defend efficiently at the center spot with no Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, or Tony Bradley to lean on. If he can, it gives Roy Williams the option to have five true shooters on the floor at the same time and present a match-up problem for any team.
Luke Maye isn’t going to consistently play as well as he did against Kentucky, nor is he going to play as consistently sub-par as he did in the Final 4. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. It is important to adjust expectations accordingly. Even a player that lands somewhere in between those two extremes is a high quality starter.
It seems like all three freshman centers have been lumped into an aggregate recruit called BrandGarrisLing BrookHuffLey. You can’t mention one without feeling compelled to mention the other two. It represents a unique opportunity for all of them. The graduation of Hicks and Meeks plus the early entry from Bradley have left a freshman Kennedy Meeks sized hole at the center position.
Brandon Huffman seems to be the player who is most ready physically to contribute immediately. He is a strong and athletic player who wants to dunk and block everything. While still limited offensively, he surrounded by four shooters at the five allows him to rebound, screen and defend which is all that would be needed. Think a more rugged Desmond Hubert.
Garrison Brooks is more advanced offensively than Huffman. He doesn’t have quite the size or defensive intensity, though. Brooks brings a bit more versatility as he can play the power forward spot as well. Think of a Deon Thompson kind of player.
Sterling Manley is almost a total unknown. He missed extended time with leg injuries and is just now starting to rebound to full health. He most likely won’t be a major contributor this year, but there is no way of knowing what the Heels will or will not get from him. That is what the word unknown means after all. Think of whatever you want because I do not have a comparison for him.
This year’s team has a lot of talent. It also has some clear weaknesses (size and rebounding). Those weaknesses give Roy Williams the opportunity to play mad scientist and tinker with the lineup in ways that he usually would frown upon. He can play three skilled ball handlers at once in Pinson, Felton and Berry. He can go big with Berry/Williams/Pinson/Maye/BrookHuffLey. He can go super small with Berry/Felton/Williams/Johnson/Pinson.
Two traditional bigs. Four shooters, one big. Five shooters. The possibilities are numerous. These adjustments and tweaks will be fascinating to watch in the non-conference slate as Williams searches for the right combination. The talent is there for another Final Four trip. After that, anything can happen.