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UNC basketball: Can Garrison Brooks become the post player this team needs?

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The Tar Heels still want more from their freshman big man.

NCAA Basketball: Clemson at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The North Carolina Tar Heels have struggled to get consistent production out of any of their young big men. In fact, the past few games Roy Williams has abandoned his roots and gone with a small lineup that features Theo Pinson at the four and Luke Maye at the five. The ups and downs that the freshmen forwards have endured were largely expected, but the Heels will need someone to step up if they want to make another run in the NCAA tournament.

The general public has leaned more towards Sterling Manley being that guy. Garrison Brooks began the year in the starting lineup, but his tentative offense and frequent mental lapses provoked fans to call for a switch. In fairness, Manley has undoubtedly been impressive on the offensive end. His 20.2 points and 16.4 rebounds per 40 minutes are staggering, but are they enough to compensate for his deficiencies on the defensive side?

It’s worth noting that the primary roadblock between Manley and the starting lineup (he hasn’t yet passed all of his running tests) is also a big reason for his defensive struggles. If you’ve watched any Carolina basketball this season, you’ve probably witnessed at least one play that resulted in Manley falling over for no apparent reason. His lack of conditioning is often obvious on the court, as he has a hard time moving his feet and holding his position. These hindrances have produced many easy buckets and fouls for opposing teams.

Brooks, meanwhile, is much more polished defensively, but does not possess the scoring skills that Manley does. The frustrations with Brooks are certainly warranted. He’s had a rough adjustment to the physicality of college basketball, but he’s quietly playing really good basketball right now.

After winning defensive player of the game for the fourth time this season at Notre Dame, Brooks turned in another solid performance against Clemson. His stats from these games won’t jump out at you (4 points/3 rebounds/1 block at ND, 2 points/3 rebounds/1 block vs. Clemson), but he’s bringing much more positive to the team when he enters the lineup. His three turnovers over those two games aren’t great given limited minutes (one of those was a botched backcourt violation call), but he has largely been much smarter with the ball.

Brooks’ defense, though, is crucial for a team that has struggled to stay in front of the ball. He’s not necessarily a rim protector, but he rarely gives up easy scores in the paint. He does a great job of keeping his body between his man and the basket, usually forcing a shot over the top rather than allowing penetration. Brooks got a lot of praise earlier in the season because of how he listened to Coach Williams and did what he was told. That discipline has since been overlooked, but it’s a big reason for his sound defense.

Offensively, it’s a different story for Brooks. His slow turnaround jumper proved ineffective against teams like Michigan State, many times ending with a block. Fortunately, Brooks has since experienced a mix of improvements in his game as well as an understanding for his limitations. It’s pretty clear that these Tar Heels aren’t going to have a Brice Johnson-type big man that you give the ball to and tell him to go get you a bucket. However, if Brooks can continue to grow his confidence and find his niche in the offense, he can separate himself as the most complete big man on this team.

Carolina enters a relatively favorable stretch with home games against Georgia Tech and NC State and a road tilt with Virginia Tech. Look for Brooks to capitalize on the lighter competition and continue to improve before the Tar Heels travel to Clemson on the 30th.