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UNC Basketball: Justin Pierce brings versatility to Tar Heels’ offense

Justin Pierce gave North Carolina a big boost against Wilmington. But can they rely on him to do it all the time?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Washington vs North Carolina Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Friday night’s game felt very much like something from the early days of college basketball. Everybody gathered around their transistor radios to listen to the dulcet tones of Jones Angell as he did the play-by-play of the North Carolina Tar Heels’ game at UNC-Wilmington. Okay, maybe that’s not completely correct. I had headphones in for much of the first half before stumbling upon a stream of the game at halftime.

The Tar Heels fended off a Wilmington team last night, and their best player in the game was Justin Pierce. Pierce was incredible, scoring 18 points on 58% shooting. Sure, some could chalk it up to the grad transfer playing against a familiar opponent in UNCW, a team he played several times during his tenure at William & Mary, a team in the same conference as the Seahawks.

But even in the season opener against Notre Dame, Pierce looked very capable of being a nice contributor for the Tar Heels this season. His shot behind the three point line looks really good, providing a drive-and-kick threat for Cole Anthony. Pierce also has been a beast on the glass, averaging nearly ten boards a game after a 12-board effort against UNCW. The graduate transfer has done really well in the absence of Brandon Robinson.

I must say, seeing a Tar Heel in the #32 jersey knocking down three pointers brings me back to the good ol’ days way back in last year with Luke Maye. This year’s team does not need Pierce to be Luke Maye. It would be nice, but if we are being realists here, he will need to have more success against better teams than UNC-Wilmington.

The biggest issue that has developed with the Tar Heels early this year is their ability to shoot behind the arc. Save for Cole Anthony, there hasn’t been a player on the roster who has set themselves apart as a knockdown three-point shooter. Andrew Platek has shown he can hit from downtown, but this will be his first year playing significant minutes. Brandon Robinson shot really well last year, but he’s currently out of commission.

An issue that could easily derive from that would be a lack of spacing for Cole Anthony, which would allow defenses to suppress him when he is trying to create offense for himself or others. That’s where Justin Pierce can really thrive in this offense.

Pierce’s size and ability to stretch the floor on offense might be crucial this season, especially with a playmaker the likes of Anthony handling the ball. Pierce did an incredible job of knocking down the open threes he was given against Wilmington, but the one thing that was really impressive was his ability to make plays on the drive.

Pierce made a great play in the second half when he was given a chance at a three, but passed it up in favor of driving to the rim and dumping it off to Garrison Brooks. Those are the types of plays that can help this Carolina offense really take off: if Pierce and others can space the floor not just by shooting but through ball movement, the game will open up for Anthony and everybody else on the floor.

The North Carolina offense has been largely stagnant in the first two games, saved by an incredible outing from Anthony in the first game and winning the second thanks to a simple talent discrepancy.

It’s still extremely early on in the season, but I’m going to look for Justin Pierce to play a big role in the Tar Heel offense heading forward, especially if they are going to become a team who can compete at all three levels on offense.