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UNC basketball: The Tar Heels need Kenny Williams to turn things around

Williams’ slump has coincided directly with that of his team’s.

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

The North Carolina Tar Heels currently sit at 5-5 in the ACC as well as 16-7 overall. After dropping two of their first three ACC games to Florida State and Virginia, Carolina rattled off four straight wins only to respond with a three-game losing streak (two were against unranked opponents), their first such losing streak since 2014.

There are many areas you can point to as potential causes for the Tar Heels’ recent woes. Their perimeter defense has seemingly gotten worse with time, allowing their last two opponents to shoot 15-30 from deep. The point guard depth, once a strength of this team, was non-existent at Clemson after Theo Pinson went down with a shoulder injury (Seventh Woods and Jalek Felton are already out). However, I’d like to focus on one area in particular, or rather, one player: Kenny Williams.

There was plenty of uncertainty coming into this year surrounding Williams, who underwent two knee surgeries during the offseason. Williams was thriving as a role player last season until a torn meniscus ended his sophomore campaign in February. After losing so many key players from that team, the question became not only if he could return to full strength, but also could he take that next step and become a primary scorer for the Tar Heels?

Initially, the answer to both questions was a resounding “yes.” At the beginning of the season, Williams was bringing otherworldly energy to each and every game for each and every minute. He was diving for loose balls, drawing charges, and shutting down opposing team’s top scorers. Not only that, but we finally started seeing why he was deemed a “sharpshooter” coming out of high school, as seemingly every deep ball that left his hands was going in. Once defenders had to respect his deadly perimeter shot, Williams started attacking guys off the dribble, and very successfully I might add. Somewhere along the way, though, we stopped seeing this version of Kenny Williams, at least not as frequently.

During the Tar Heels’ non-conference slate, Williams was shooting the ball at an unreal rate of 52%. Through ten ACC games, however, he is just 13-52 (25%) from deep. Unsurprisingly, his point total has taken a dip as well. After averaging 12.3 points per game during the non-conference, Williams is averaging 9.1 points per game in ACC play.

There are a likely a few factors behind these lower numbers. For one, the gauntlet that is the ACC serves as a big step up from home games against the likes of Bucknell and Tulane. Also, teams have started to key in on Williams more than before. He hasn’t had the luxury of a couple open shots early in games to get himself going that he once had. Finally, the return of Cameron Johnson has meant that there’s less scoring to go around. Still, there’s no denying that UNC is simply a better team when Kenny Williams is producing.

The Tar Heels are 3-5 this year in games where Williams recorded single-digit points. Conversely, Carolina is 13-2 when he has scored in double figures. Much has been said recently about the Heels’ need for another scorer behind Joel Berry and Luke Maye. While the aforementioned Cam Johnson has aptly filled that role at times, there’s no reason Williams can’t do it as well and with more consistency.

The key for Williams is to attack early and often. Sometimes the best thing a shooter can do is not actually think of himself as a shooter and let it come naturally. Over his last six games, 21 of Williams’ 38 shot attempts (55%) have come from the outside. Of those 21 attempts, he’s only connected on 3 of them (14%). He’s also averaging just 6.5 ppg over that span.

The Tar Heels desperately need to right the ship, and a rejuvenated Kenny Williams might be their ticket to do just that. Williams must reverse his slump if Carolina has any hopes of having its name back in the national conversation.