The ceiling is the roof, as one esteemed Tar Heel has declared.
Now is a popular time of year for optimism among both basketball and football fans, with the former season still a couple of months away and the latter season just underway. As NFL predictions remind us, every team will win at least 10 games and, worst-case scenario, snag a wild-card spot, right? Well, no.
For now, though, let that be the vibe. For each of the nine returning UNC players who averaged at least three minutes per game in 2017-18, I will try to assess his ceiling for the upcoming season in terms of both statistics and role. If everything breaks right for this player, if he has improved significantly over the offseason, if team injuries and/or chemistry alter what we think the current formula is, what is the best conceivable season he could produce in 2018-19?
These ceilings are meant to be individually realistic without the team framework in mind. In all likelihood, only a few players — if any — can feasibly reach their numbers since they will compete for a finite pool of statistics. At the same time, even though Seventh Woods may be perfectly capable of driving for a dunk four times per game, it just doesn’t sound like something that will happen in an organized structure and therefore will not be computed.
For each player, I will also identify his best moment so far as a Tar Heel and recount last season’s stats. Other writers here at Tar Heel Blog have dug deep to suggest what the incoming freshmen may be able to provide in 2018-19, so I will leave them out and watch their unknown production throw another monkey wrench into this analysis.
Before you discount any of these rose-colored projections, remind yourself of several recent player development stories under Coach Roy Williams – Luke Maye, Marcus Paige, Isaiah Hicks, J.P. Tokoto, John Henson, etc., etc., etc.
In decreasing order of minutes per game last season:
Senior F Luke Maye
Best moment: March 26, 2017 vs. Kentucky (W 75-73)
“Pinson driving in … looks up … finds Maye … Maye for the win!“ Yeah, this one is easy. After Kentucky erased a seven-point deficit in the final minute of the Elite 8, the unheralded Maye shot the Heels to the Final Four and an eventual National Championship with a practically buzzer-beating long two-point jumper.
2017-18 stats: 37 gp, 32.2 mpg, 16.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 1.0 spg, 1.0 bpg, 48.6 FG%, 43.1 3PT%, 62.4 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 20 ppg, 12 rpg, 5 apg, 1.5 spg, 1.5 bpg, 55 FG%, 45 3PT%, 75 FT%
These numbers would essentially require Maye to keep up his production from last year’s non-conference schedule through the ACC grind and entire season. If everything comes together in the Carolina hero’s senior season, though, it is perfectly possible. Make a few more bunnies around the basket, take a slightly higher volume of triples, convert 10% more free throws, and voila. Maye figures to be even more of an integral playmaker in the offense with the departure of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, which could result in him leading the Heels in assists. This output would almost surely make Maye a lock for ACC Player of the Year and a favorite for National Player of the Year.
Senior G Kenny Williams
Best moment: December 17, 2017 @ Tennessee (W 78-73)
This might be the hardest player to choose, with several ridiculously hot shooting streaks among the options. But Williams’ cold-blooded go-ahead three-pointer with 33 seconds left at Tennessee during last year’s non-conference slate takes the cake. The Heels won 78-73 after trailing most of the game to avoid a second loss before the New Year (until Wofford arrived in Chapel Hill three days later).
2017-18 stats: 37 gp, 31.1 mpg, 11.4 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.0 spg, 48.6 FG%, 40.2 3PT%, 70.4 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 17 ppg, 5 rpg, 4 apg, 1.5 spg, 45 3PT%, 80 FT%
A solid all-around player, Williams can round out his game even more and potentially become the Heels second option. More or less, will he improve from good to great? Williams hopes to combine his usual scorching-hot shooting stretches from deep with a higher volume of overall attempts and game-in, game-out impact. UNC will also look to Williams as one of its clutch shooters late in games, and whenever the team needs a game-swinging defensive play (e.g., a drawn charge or blindside block). He can also feasibly help himself out by improving his free throw shooting --- where he should earn more than last year’s meager 54 attempts --- from the 70 percent range into the 80s.
Senior G Cameron Johnson
Best moment: February 8, 2018 vs. Duke (W 82-78)
Johnson displayed no jitters whatsoever in his first taste of the greatest rivalry on the planet, scoring 18 points and grabbing 13 rebounds in the Carolina victory. He also snapped a nearly six-minute scoring drought as the Heels risked handing over (yet another) win to the Devils, drilling one of his four triples for a 77-71 lead with just over three minutes to play.
2017-18 stats: 26 gp, 29.3 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 2.3 apg, 34.1 3PT%, 84.7 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 16 ppg, 7 rpg, 4 apg, 40 3PT%, 90 FT%.
The fifth-year senior Johnson can swing UNC’s fortunes heavily. He looks to overcome a few injury issues to serve as one of Carolina’s lead guards during his second and final season in Chapel Hill. Johnson’s three-point percentage dropped from 42% in his last season at Pittsburgh in 2016-17 to 34% last year on a slightly smaller volume of attempts; the Heels would gladly settle for the median of those percentages, and should expect at least a mini bounce-back. More important is when Johnson’s triples come; he and Williams will be counted on as the crunch-time shooters and playmakers down the stretch of tough games. The former Panther will also likely serve as Carolina’s designated “get the ball to him” player when trying to ice a late lead from the free-throw line.
Sophomore F Garrison Brooks
Best moment: March 9, 2018 vs. Duke (W 74-69)
Brooks shook off an egregious hip check from Grayson Allen to serve as one of the biggest contributors in UNC’s first postseason win over Duke since 1998. The frosh had 10 points and four rebounds while playing strong interior defense on the Devils’ star freshman duo of Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. Brooks made up for scoring only four total points to go along with eight rebounds in his first two career matchups with Duke, and the Heels survived again.
2017-18 stats: 37 gp, 14.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 52.8 FG%, 58.7 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 10 ppg, 8 rpg, 60 FG%, 67 FT%.
An ideal season from Brooks would involve holding down the starting center job and coming close to averaging double digits in both points and rebounds. Perhaps for Brooks more than any other player on UNC’s roster, his stats will not be as critical as the role he serves to the functioning of the team as a whole. He needs to build on last season’s growth by running the floor well, staying out of foul trouble, and playing steady defense. And as for every player, another 10% from the charity stripe wouldn’t hurt.
Sophomore F Sterling Manley
Best moment: November 11, 2017 vs. Bucknell (W 93-81)
In just his second collegiate game, Manley displayed his tantalizing potential with a monster game of 16 points and 13 rebounds in only 17 minutes. He also blocked two shots. The win over the Bison was Manley’s first of four double-digit scoring games and two double-digit rebounding games in his debut season.
2017-18 stats: 37 gp, 10.0 mpg, 5.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 56.6 FG%, 69.2 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 10 ppg, 8 rpg, 1 bpg, 65 FG%, 75 FT%
Manley’s best projection is probably similar to Brooks’, with perhaps a bit more upside for high-volume stats. Doubling his minutes to earn at least 20 per game is well within sight. Manley also could present UNC’s best shot-blocking option on the team and one of its springiest rebounders. As long as he’s in tip-top shape and prepared to be a plus-defender, he is in line for a strong year. His free-throw mark was not bad at all for a freshman big man, buy why not aim for 75%?
Junior G Brandon Robinson
Best moment: December 1, 2017 @ Davidson (W 85-75)
A pesky Davidson team hung around longer than the Heels envisioned, and the circumstances at the end could have been much trickier without Robinson’s eight points, all scored in the middle of the first half. As he has done from time to time, B-Rob flashed his ability to drive to the hoop and score from the midrange, also tallying a couple of rebounds and assists each. A blowout win over Western Carolina a few days later allowed Robinson to notch his first and only double-digit scoring game as a Tar Heel.
2017-18 stats: 35 gp, 8.6 mpg, 1.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 39.1 3PT%, 71.4 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 8 ppg, 4 rpg, 2 apg, 50 FG%, 40 3PT%
Robinson has been patiently waiting his turn in Chapel Hill, and while an instant burst into stardom is unlikely, this could be the year he truly feels involved. The junior should be able to claim at least a steady 15 minutes per game, which would nearly double his burn from last season. If a bulked-up B-Rob has been working hard on his game and proves to be a breakout player, that’s great. But chipping in a few timely plays each game --- driving runner, nifty assist, pesky steal, etc. --- would be welcome enough.
Sophomore G Andrew Platek
Best moment: November 23, 2017 vs. Portland (W 102-78)
Platek scored 12 points on five shot attempts as UNC cruised to a win over Portland in the PK80 Invitational. He cleaned up his plate on Thanksgiving, missing just one shot to reach double figures for the first time in only 10 minutes.
2017-18 stats: 35 gp, 7.5 mpg, 2.0 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 49.1 FG%, 37.0 3PT%, 70.0 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 9 ppg, 3 rpg, 2 apg, 40 3PT%, 80 FT%
Platek could emerge as one of the first guards off the bench and a premiere scoring option for the Heels. He showed off enough overall skills as a freshman to suggest he could be ready for a big leap forward. The 20-minute-per-game mark is a reasonable target and would allow Platek to flirt with double-digit points per contest. If not, the Heels would love just a long ball or two per game and gritty defense from the young reserve.
Junior G Seventh Woods
Best moment: March 8, 2018 vs. Miami (W 82-65)
Woods also offers a few interesting options, but they are probably more along the lines of “memorable” than “best.” There was that time he stole the ball and dunked not once, but twice in the closing seconds of a blowout win over Northern Iowa during his freshman season (I’m not convinced Roy Williams has still ever seen the second one --- he was already shaking hands with the opposing coach). It would also be lacking not to mention his posterizing dunk in the Bahamas this summer.
Not to be overlooked, however, Woods has often played some solid defense in his limited minutes in Chapel Hill. For a non-exhibition version, take last season’s ACC quarterfinals, when UNC fell behind to Miami 14-0 and Coach Williams opted for the patented full-platoon substitution. Woods helped ignite a spark in the bench mob with some in-your-face defense that led to his three-point play and an assist on the ensuing possession. Carolina slowly climbed back to lead by halftime and won comfortably, and Coach Williams was certainly impressed with his backup point guard: “The best play was Seventh taking the ball to the basket because the first group in there acted like we were going to be shot and killed and done all kinds of things.”
2017-18 stats: 20 gp, 7.0 mpg, 1.1 ppg, 1.0 apg, 80.0 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 7 ppg, 4 apg, 45 FG%, 80 FT%
If Woods is able to somehow hold off Coby White for the starting point guard job, then that in itself will show he has the potential to blow past these guesses. Even if he does not, he has the makeup to at least play meaningful minutes in a complementary role to the freshman. As usual, that duty will be about limiting turnovers, playing hard defense, and finding the right playmakers at the right time.
Sophomore F Brandon Huffman
Best moment: November 20, 2017 @ Stanford (W 96-72)
Huffman did not miss a shot in this cross-coast showdown, hitting both attempts from the field and all four free-throw tries. He also pulled down five rebounds in only nine minutes, exhibiting his promise as a third new big body for the program. Huffman made the first shot for Carolina by anyone besides Kenny Williams, who was busy doing Kenny Williams things, and the Heels cruised to an early-season win.
2017-18 stats: 29 gp, 3.4 mpg, 1.6 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 54.3 FG%, 56.3 FT%
2018-19 ceiling: 6 ppg, 4 rpg, 65 FG%, 67 FT%
Huffman aims to carve out a reliable 12-minute-per-game role sparing Maye, Brooks, and Manley. He knows how to play with high energy and intensity at all times, and other than that, a couple of buckets and a couple of rebounds per outgoing will go a long way towards boosting the Heels’ bench attack. It is not a stretch to predict that Huffman could average at least one dunk per game.