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UNC Tar Heels Basketball: Junior class preview

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This class doesn’t have the volume of some of UNC’s others, but it’s going to be a vital one this season

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NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-North Carolina vs Syracuse Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, UNC basketball held their its first ever open practice. On Friday, the team will hold their first open scrimmage of the season, and next Tuesday, less than a week from today, they open the 2018-2019 season. It’s an exciting time for Tar Heel fans, and to keep the hype train from the last two days rolling, let’s take a look at this year’s junior class:

Seventh Woods

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament Championship-Virginia vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

All eyes are on Woods to start this season. Early reports are that he has finally strung together a few healthy months in a row, and if he was going to be recovering from a rash of lower body injuries, it couldn’t be at a better time for the former most famous 14-year old in the country (I’m not sure I’ll ever tire of finding excuses to link this video). Joel Berry has graduated after a storied career, and the Tar Heels’ starting point guard spot is up for grabs. And regardless of who wins it between Woods and Coby White, there is ample playing time available for both at the position, and Woods will have a huge role to play if this team is to challenge for a Final Four berth this season.

What everybody talks about with Woods first is his athleticism. And while it’s fair, particularly given what made him famous at 14, I think that does him a disservice, because people fall into the trap of thinking it’s the foundation of his game, and thus that he’s “more athlete than basketball player.” It really isn’t and he isn’t at all; he’s the closest thing, in terms of skillset, that UNC has had to a classic, “pure” point guard since Kendall Marshall. The 6’2 guard has outstanding court vision, excellent handles, and knows what the right play is at pretty much all times; he led the team in assist rate his freshman year and came third to Theo Pinson and Jalek Felton last year. His speed and athleticism are a bonus, particularly on defense, where he was one of UNC’s best perimeter assets, and in transition. Unfortunately, his game hasn’t shown the maturity and control necessary to make that skillset really useful, and Woods has been prone to playing faster than he thinks and getting out of control in his first two years as a Tar Heel, resulting in a lot of turnovers. The hope is that with the ability to consistently practice at college speed while fully healthy, he’ll learn to have his body and mind on the same page.

The best thing about Seventh Woods, though, is his clutch gene. It’s not something anybody tends to talk about for somebody who hasn’t even been a starter yet, but two years into his career, it’s clear that Woods lives for the biggest moments. In his first game at Duke, he sparked the team off the bench and put up 4 points and 4 assists in just 8 minutes of play. He has routinely excelled against NC State, which we know Roy Williams treats as a special game even if fans prefer not to, and last year, showed an uncanny knack for hitting shots at the end of the shot clock or first half. For a guy not known as a shot maker, that’s pretty cool. The weakness in his game, of course, is his jump shot, where he will likely lag well behind most, if not all, of his teammates on the perimeter. His job, then, and the niche he should target, will be to get them the best looks they can get. He’s shown the ability to do so, and hopefully being an upperclassman brings with it some consistency.

Brandon Robinson

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Miami vs North Carolina Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of guys who will likely have increased roles this year, Brandon Robinson is going to be asked to step up in a big way entering the back half of his college career after averaging just about 8 minutes per game in both his first two years as a Tar Heel. The 6’5’’ wing came in with the reputation of a shooter, and after a shaky first year from beyond the arc, showed fans that his jumper was for real, hitting 9 of 23 attempts for a 39.1% rate. It wasn’t the PJ Hairston- or Kenny Williams-esque breakout that some, myself included, were looking for, but it was an indication that he’s settling into the player he was recruited to be.

His freshman year, while his shot wasn’t falling, Robinson made his mark as a scrapper: He was ready, even eager, to hit the deck in pursuit of loose balls, he was physical around the basket even when he clearly didn’t have the body to back up that kind of play, and generally played at 110% all the time. This resulted in a very balanced statline; he averaged 10 points, 6.1 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.4 steals per 40 minutes his freshman year. Curiously, many of those numbers fell last season, as his per 40 averages went to 8.1/6.4/2.9/0.8. The rebounds went up as he learned to handle college physicality more, even if he’s still on the lanky side, but the energy plays he stood out for in 2017 weren’t there at the same level in 2018. If they had been, he probably would’ve seen a substantial increase in minutes. A team can always use a scrapper, especially if he can shoot

As one of UNC’s key backup wing players, the role he should aim to fill is that of energy guy; a player with the ability to come in and provide instant offense by making shots, but also lifting the entire team’s performance by making the tough plays that may or may not show up in the box score. He has the ability and willingness to be a phenomenal spark off the bench whose impact is both tangible and intangible, and this is the time for him to, essentially, combine his first two years into a single entity. If he is able to do so, he’ll be a key contributor to this team.

Shea Rush

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Turns out the team milliner can also play a little! (I kid, I kid) Shea Rush gained a ton of fame for having custom-made hats for the entire team for March Madness 2017, but we’re here to talk about him as a player. Rush probably isn’t going to break the regular rotation, but it’s worth noting that after coming to UNC as a preferred walk-on, Rush earned a scholarship over senior walk-ons Kane Ma and Aaron Rohlman in his sophomore year. When he takes the court with Blue Steel, it’s clear that he’s just a bit ahead of the rest of the unit in terms of athleticism and skill; he’s come this close to making a few genuinely jaw-dropping plays and he always becomes the de facto ballhandler even though that’s not his game at all. Again, he hasn’t done anything to suggest that he’ll get serious playing time in games this season, but he’s definitely an asset to the team’s attitude and surely a terror in practice. Maybe he’ll complete a phenomenal play sometime this year.

Caleb Ellis

Since this is Ellis’ first year with the varsity squad, we don’t have a picture of him we can use. What I can link you to, though, is this amazing profile from GoHeels.com, which profiles Ellis’ journey from Tar Heel basketball fan to finally making it to the varsity team after transferring from UNC-Charlotte and then spending two years on UNC’s junior varsity team while battling through several injuries. It’s well worth your time. If you want to get to it later, though, and want to know a little about him as a player, this quote from Hubert Davis is something:

“My first thoughts when I saw him were one, where did he come from? and two why is he here?” said Davis. “That type of athleticism doesn’t come around JV.”

We’ve only seen a glimpse of him, and that was at Late Night With Roy, which doesn’t really give you much to go on in general. His official UNC profile lists him as a high school standout at guard, having scored nearly 1000 points in 3 seasons, so that’s pretty cool. Like Rush, Ellis is unlikely to get serious minutes this season. But he does have the pedigree, and the compliment from Coach Davis, to be able to, like Rush, wow us a couple of times when he does come in. I’ll be rooting for it.

Just two more days until we can see this team in action!

We’ll have our preview of the 2019 senior class tomorrow.

Until then, Go Heels.