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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Jeremiah Francis

The former top-50 PG hasn’t played competitive basketball in almost two years.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at South Carolina Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

We’re two weeks out from the first football game, but today we’ll keep the focus on our UNC basketball summer previews. As always, you can check out the previous parts of this series below. After today, we still have more weeks of these shenanigans for those that prefer basketball to football (or in case football replicates their past two seasons). Onward and upward!

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview
June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview
July 8th: Sterling Manley previewJuly
15th: Andrew Platek preview
July 21st: Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks preview
July 29th: Rechon “Leaky” Black
August 12th: Anthony Harris

Four freshmen will wear the UNC jersey this season, and as you see above, we covered shooting guard Anthony Harris last week. Today, we’ll move onto Jeremiah Francis, who may be the least well-known of the prospects. If you forgot Francis was joining the team, nobody could really blame you. He hasn’t played competitive basketball in almost two years and required two separate knee surgeries in that time. He’s expected to be cleared as the season nears and hasn’t had any known setbacks in his rehab.

While the injuries are obviously concerning, it’s important to remember two things.

First, Francis was the first recruit to commit to UNC’s 2019 class when he decided to follow his high school teammate Sterling Manley from Pickerington, Ohio, to Chapel Hill. He committed early, eagerly, and has stayed true to the Heels. That included multiple trips to Chapel Hill for medical visits and rehab as he and his family began to integrate themselves into the program. Tanya and Brandon touched on that family atmosphere in this piece from March.

Second, Francis is arguably another example of Roy Williams identifying underrated talent early before they fly up the recruiting rankings. Francis committed over two years ago on August 11, 2017, before he even began his junior season. “Just” a four-star point guard and ranked #65 in the 247 Sports Composite at the time, he still rose to #51 by the following summer despite missing most of his junior season with a torn ACL. However, missing the 2018 summer evaluation period, followed by an additional microfracture surgery that August, put an end to that momentum. He plummeted into the triple-digits before eventually landing with a three-star rating at #175.

The takeaway with that history, though, isn’t that Francis dropped because he played poorly. Francis simply didn’t play at all. That’s an important distinction when analyzing his potential. When (or if) Francis returns to full health, he was on track to be one of the best point guards in this class. Despite UNC’s current trend of welcoming high turnover at the point guard position via NBA-ready talent, Francis may eventually be the answer to long term stability.

Here are a few videos to drive home that point. The first is when he and Sterling Manley combined for 48 points in a playoff victory.

The second is an overall mixtape from Francis’ sophomore year, when he averaged 15.9 points.

The final video is from a scrimmage in November of 2017, just weeks before he tore his ACL.

Unfortunately, this is a preview for this season and not Francis’ career. So, what should UNC fans expect?

From a purely objective standpoint, it’ll be a surprise if Francis is able to provide anything of tangible value on the court this season. While not impossible, a kid of Francis’ size and skill is likely missing the conditioning required to play in UNC’s system. After being sidelined for two years, the expectations for this season should err on the side of extreme caution.

That is doubly frustrating because not only is a former top-50 talent constantly hurdling over obstacles, but there is also a glaring need at the back-up point guard position. As we’ve mentioned in multiple previews, there is no known answer at the position. Leaky Black seems the natural selection, but other holes in the roster may require his talents. Anthony Harris is also coming off a torn ACL. A healthy Francis would be the clear answer to a currently unsolved riddle.

There has also been speculation that Francis might redshirt this season. Redshirts in basketball, especially at UNC, are rare. No decision has been made and all indications are that the coaching staff will leave that decision up to Francis and/or his family. Numerous factors can shape that decision, but now it appears that Francis will at least attempt to get on the court and evaluate the situation. Redshirts cannot participate in games, but they can practice and take part in team events. As frustrating as that may be for Francis, and even though we don’t know the full extent of his medical status, there is a strong argument that a redshirt season would ultimately benefit player, coaches, and the program.

However, if the stars align and Francis is healthy, then the Heels are getting a tough, physical, attacking point guard to complement Cole Anthony’s skills. If those vague platitudes make you roll your eyes, then imagine a player who skews to a more pass-friendly version of Joel Berry compared to the score-first mindset of Coby White and, to a lesser extent, Marcus Paige. Francis won’t blow anyone away with his athleticism, explosiveness, or shot-creating abilities, but he’s unafraid to seek contact and forcefully take space.

If Anthony plays a Coby White-esque 28.5 minutes a night, then 5-7 minutes per game is a reasonable benchmark for a healthy Francis. That would be enough time to provide a change of pace, give Anthony a breather, and allow Black, Harris, and Brandon Robinson to strengthen the rest of the perimeter rotation. It would also give Francis a vital introduction to college competition before Anthony’s inevitable NBA departure leaves another void at the starting point guard spot.

With the regular season now less than two months away, keep your fingers crossed for Francis’ health and success. Just don’t be surprised if that success and good health are still a year or two away.