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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Armando Bacot

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UNC has a noticeable void in the paint. Can the 5-star freshman fill it?

IMG Academy v Montverde Academy Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images

In 32 days, Late Night with Roy will mark the unofficial opening to UNC’s basketball season. The team will begin the festivities a little earlier than in previous years to maximize their efforts during a key football weekend when the Clemson Tigers come to town. With just four Mondays remaining until then, but five scheduled previews remaining, we almost planned this perfectly. While I figure out how to overcome this clear scheduling disaster, you can find our previous efforts at the links below.

June 23rd: Brandon Robinson preview
June 30th: Brandon Huffman preview
July 8th: Sterling Manley preview
July 15th: Andrew Platek preview
July 21st: Garrison “Mr. Pickle” Brooks preview
July 29th: Rechon “Leaky” Black Preview
August 12th: Anthony Harris Preview
August 19th: Jeremiah Francis Preview

After focusing on Anthony Harris and Jeremiah Francis the past two weeks, let’s move down low and focus on incoming freshman big man Armando Bacot. By now, fans are familiar with him through his social media presence and (mostly) self-anointed title as lead recruiter for the Heels. This past spring when North Carolina was looking for the final pieces of their roster, Bacot kept Heels fans informed of any successes through Twitter or Instagram, often through cryptic phrases or behind-the-scenes video. It was even Armando’s Instagram feed that leaked KJ Smith’s recent scholarship offer. He clearly understands the way to a fan’s heart.

However, social media communiques don’t transfer to the court, where the 6-10, 240lb center will try and impress fans with his basketball skills. A consensus 5-star recruit, both Rivals and the 247 Sports Composite rankings listed him as the #27 player in the country. ESPN slotted him at #18. Along the way, he was named an McDonald’s All-American.

That puts him firmly in the Tony Bradley and Coby White range of being a potential one-and-done. Both Bradley and White were absent from mock draft boards prior to arriving to Chapel Hill. Bacot is currently in a similar situation.

He used his final season of high school ball to play at IMG Academy in Florida and helped lead them to national title at the GEICO Nationals. Prior to joining IMG, he was AAU teammates with fellow freshman Anthony Harris and was a key part of that team’s undefeated run through the 2018 Nike EYBL summer circuit. That run included a title at Nike’s elite Peach Jam (where he was named the MVP after a 14 point, 14 rebound performance in the title game). Oh, he also won a gold medal with USA Basketball. Success just follows the dude.

We gave some analysis of his game when he committed, which you can find here and here. You can also check out Sports Illustrated’s recent analysis, which mostly backs up everything we’ve told you here over the past year. Or watch for yourself.

Here’s a quick interview with highlights.

And here we have a mixtape from this past season.

With an open void at the 5-spot, Bacot will have early opportunities to step in and earn major minutes. As he’s the Heels’ first true elite prospect down low since Tony Bradley, it’s easy to understand the excitement. With Brandon Huffman’s development still a work in progress and Sterling Manley’s health a fluctuating unknown, Bacot could be the most stable option down low. This is especially true as UNC goes back to the traditional 3-out, 2-in format that Roy Williams prefers.

So, what should we expect?

Adept at keeping the ball high, Bacot is skilled at the rim with soft hands and an arsenal of post moves. If the ball is anywhere near his body, Bacot is going to grab it. With above-average court vision, he’ll also be more than just a low-post scoring or rebounding threat. There are reasons to be optimistic, and with Cole Anthony running the point he will get plenty of touches.

Those attributes will serve him well, as he lacks overwhelming athleticism and has seen his body and conditioning ebb and flow. More finesse than power and dependent on positioning rather than brute force, he’ll have a steeper learning curve than some of his peers as he figures how his game translates to the next level. While he doesn’t shy away from contact and isn’t afraid to attack the rim, he won’t go through a defender either. Young big men in college often struggle with the physicality and pace of play, and Bacot won’t be an exception.

He’s also not as imposing on defense as one might expect. A 7-1 wingspan helps, but the same mid-level athleticism that hinders him on offense will do the same on defense at the college level. A legitimate concern is that he may be limited (or exposed) when facing smaller, perimeter-oriented teams, but Bacot will also struggle to provide consistent rim protection. If he is slow to pick up UNC’s defensive system, help rotations and positioning, Armando can’t compensate with instincts or physical traits like a Brice Johnson. That deserves extra attention because rim protection has been a major issue for the Heels the past two seasons.

For fun, here’s a quick look at a few freshman big men who played extended minutes at UNC over the last decade:

Ed Davis: 18.8 mpg, 6.7 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.7 bpg, 51.8 FG%, 57.3 FT%
James M. McAdoo: 15.6 mpg, 6.1 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.3 apg, 0.3 bpg, 43.4 FG%, 63.8 FT%
Kennedy Meeks: 16.3 mpg, 7.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.8 bpg, 54.8 FG%, 58.6 FT%
Tony Bradley: 14.6 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.6 bpg, 57.3 FG%, 61.9 FT%
Garrison Brooks: 14.6 mpg, 4.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.3 bpg, 52.8 FG%, 58.7 FT%

There are four McDonald’s All-Americans on that list. Two of them, Bradley and Davis, won titles as a freshman. Just Brooks (16) and Meeks (17) started more than three games. Davis and Meeks both have a case for the “best” first season. Will Bacot find 20+ minutes, average 12 and 8, and leave after one season? Sure. It could happen. I guess. If he’s better than Ed Davis.

Based on those comparisons and the limitations mentioned above (and a borderline non-existent mid-range game), I freely admit I’m not near as high on Bacot’s potential for this year. A more realistic ceiling is 14-16 mpg and an inconsistent 7 and 6, though that prediction relies on the health of the other Tar Heels. Another season ending injury to Manley could increase Bacot’s playing time. Even with the unknowns of the roster and rotations, if Bacot fails to elevate himself as the clear-cut number one option, the Heels still have the pieces to go small with Garrison Brooks at the five.

However, if Bacot follows the Garrison Brooks methods of success – be in the right place at the right time, rebound, and learn the defense – he could be the major surprise of this season, because the talent is there. The potential for 20+ minutes as a freshman big man exists. History at UNC just tells us that unless you’re Tyler Hansbrough, that potential is never met.