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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Brandon Huffman

The big man has produced in his limited minutes. Can he became a regular contributor next season?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wake Forest Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we started our summer preview series for the men’s basketball team. Brandon Robinson got the starting nod as the only recruited scholarship senior returning to next year’s team. Partly as a nod to UNC’s longstanding philosophy of rewarding seniority, and partly because the new recruits have received more than enough attention in previous weeks, the series continues with rising the juniors. This week, we’ll move into the post and take a look at Brandon Huffman.

Brandon Huffman

6-10, 250lbs
2018-19 stats: 2.5 mpg, 1.1 ppg, 0.9 rpg, 0.1 apg

So far, Huffman’s career at UNC has either been exactly what you expected or slightly underwhelming. Some of that can be attributed to Luke Maye’s success at the power forward allowing Garrison Brooks to play as the team’s center for two years. As a sophomore, with Nassir Little and a healthy Cam Johnson stealing additional minutes at the “4”, Huffman actually saw a decrease in playing time from his freshman season. UNC’s style last year just wasn’t conducive to a player of Huff’s talents.

A more likely explanation is that Huffman entered school as a raw talent that faced a steep learning curve. The fact that he never logged more than eight minutes in a game last season, despite fellow center Sterling Manley ailing with a lingering knee issue, adds credence to that idea. As Dean Smith and Bull Guthridge used to say, though, you can’t teach height. Sometimes, it just takes a few years for that height to develop into a serviceable player.

What does that mean for this season? To answer that, let’s focus on a couple of strengths and weaknesses.

Huffman is nothing but pure power and aggression…inside of three feet. Dunking, defense, rebounding, facial expressions. You name it. He made 59% of his two-point attempts (13-22) and grabbed 24 rebounds in 67 total minutes of playing time. He only committed one turnover all season. That’s not terrible production, even if some of those buckets happened in the final minutes of blowouts. As mentioned above, though, the lack of playing time is concerning and/or frustrating.

Advanced stats were also favorable for Huff. Acknowledging the small sample size and that advanced metrics can be skewed for players who don’t play many minutes, they aren’t totally useless. For reference, here’s this piece I wrote after Luke Maye’s sophomore season, where I made the case that his advanced stats as a freshman and sophomore indicated he would finish his career somewhere between James Michael McAdoo and Kennedy Meeks. I’ll let you be the judge to the accuracy, but the point remains that these metrics *can* be useful.

In Huffman’s case last season, he led the team in offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%) at 17.3% and total rebounding percentage (TRB%) at 18.5%. He had the lowest turnover percentage (3.5%), and the highest Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 25.1. His per-40 projections were 18.5 points and 14.5 rebounds per game. Those are all reasons to be optimistic if he gets more opportunities on the court.

However, there are very real obstacles to him getting more playing time. Most notably, he has looked lost and confused on both ends of the floor. Missed assignments on defense, or being in the wrong position on offense, has caused problems. Compare that to Garrison Brooks. Huffman’s classmate hasn’t been a stat machine, but understands where to be on the court at almost all times. There’s a reason Brooks has started 52 games in two seasons, despite averaging just 6.2 points and 4.5 rebounds for his career.

Additionally, as referenced, Huffman has been largely one-dimensional. With few discernible post moves, poor free throw shooting (41% last season), and zero range outside three feet, Huffman must be fed the ball in the post or make the most of his offensive rebounds. That turns his 250 pounds into little more than an opportunistic scorer and part-time defender. He also hasn’t shown (or had many opportunities to show) an ability to run to the rim in primary and secondary break situations. The Heels will need more next season.

Regardless, this shouldn’t be a surprise considering his background. His first few years of high school ball were in Alaska, before he moved to North Carolina and finished playing at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh. He basically had to learn the game from the bottom up when he arrived at UNC. That takes time, especially in a system like UNC’s that has often seen big men struggle in early years, only to become key contributors (if not All-ACC selections) by the time they leave college.

With Brooks expected to move back to the more natural position at power forward, Huffman has the opportunity to make his presence felt at center. Sure, he needs to develop at least one solid post-move. Huffman will likely never be a great defender outside of 10 feet, so improving his rim protection would be a welcome development. He also needs to demonstrate an actual knowledge of offensive and defensive principles, especially if Cole Anthony is as good as advertised.

Oh yeah. Cole Anthony. He’ll be important to Huffman.

Anthony’s arrival should revive the post-game in Chapel Hill. After three years of Joel Berry and Coby White’s high-usage, score-first mentalities, Anthony brings a different flavor. That should feed optimism that the big men at UNC will see a resurgence in their roles. For all his talents, numerous times last season White would turn down a post-entry, despite open passing lanes and favorable match-ups. Yes, he’ll get buckets, but Cole has the potential to be the best facilitator at the point since Kendall Marshall. Knowing when and where to feed the post is an underrated and overlooked skill.

If Huffman can make the mental leap and put himself in the proper positions, he should benefit from a different mentality at the point guard spot. How might that manifest on the court? More pick-n-rolls to put opponents in mismatches? More of a traditional hi-lo system? An increase in feeding big men on the block from the wing? All of that remains to be seen, but it’s worth watching in the early months.

As a junior, the time for excuses and learning curves have passed. Incoming freshman Armando Bacot and a healthy Manley (fingers crossed) aren’t going to concede the gaping opening in the post without a battle. The center position will be one of about 627 questions for this team entering the year. But, unless Bacot is as good or better than Tony Bradley was as a freshman, Huffman will have the chance to make a huge leap.