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UNC Basketball Summer Preview: Justin Pierce

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One of two graduate transfers, Pierce’s versatility makes him a valuable addition

NCAA Basketball: William & Mary at Texas Christian Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Late Night With Roy is just six days away, which means this is the perfect time to finish our Summer Preview Series of the UNC men’s basketball roster. Considering today is the first day of fall, our timing is impeccable. All previous installments are listed below. If you’ve missed any, take a gander or bookmark this article for later viewing.

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
August 26th: Armando Bacot Preview
September 3rd: Cole Anthony Preview
September 16th: Christian Keeling Preview

This week’s preview focuses on the Heels’ second graduate transfer, Justin Pierce. The small/power forward played three seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association for William & Mary. His head coach, Tony Shaver, played for Dean Smith from 1972-1976. I’m sure that connection didn’t hurt when Pierce chose North Carolina.

After making 29 appearances off the bench as a freshman, Pierce started 54 of 59 games over his sophomore and junior seasons. Listed as a guard, the 6’7 and 215-pounds transfer was the second-tallest starter for the Tribe, making him a de facto power forward or stretch-4. That seemed to work in his favor. In his final two seasons he led the team in rebounding and was second in points per game. Both years he was named 3rd-team All-CAA . Here are the quick stats from the past two years.

2017-18: 31.6 mpg, 14.7 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.8 to, 50.2 FG%, 54.7 2P%, 41.6 3P%,
2018-19: 34.3 mpg, 14.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 4.1 apg, 2.2 to, 46.4 FG%, 56.1 2P%, 32.4 3P%,

Clearly comfortable with playing heavy minutes, his scoring and rebound production slightly increased as a senior, while his efficiency dipped. This was especially noticeable with his three-point shooting. A wrist injury was reportedly the cause of these shooting issues. If that’s the case, and he’s healthy, then he’ll be a legitimate deep threat for the Heels. Here are some highlights from his time in Williamsburg supporting that.

As we mentioned last week when previewing Christian Keeling, there are always valid concerns about a graduate transfer taking a step up in competition. Those concerns were addressed for Keeling, who never really suffered a decrease in performance against high-major opponents while at Charleston Southern. The results are a little more uneven for Pierce.

Focusing just on his two years as a starter, we broke down his production against different levels of mid and high majors. Those came out to three “Power Five” opponents (UVA, Ohio State, TCU), four in the A-10 (George Mason x 2, Duquesne, St. Joe’s), three in C-USA (Marshall x 2, ODU), and one in the AAC (UCF). Check it out.

Power Five: 3 games, 28.6 mpg, 4.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 1.3 apg, 23.0 FG% (6-26), 25.0 3P% (4-16)A-10: 4 games, 34 mpg, 16.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 4.0 apg, 48.9 FG% (24-49), 48.9 3P% (8-18)
C-USA: 3 games, 28.6 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 3.6 apg, 34.6 FG% (9-26), 14.2 3P% (1-7)
AAC: 1 game, 32 min, 19 points, 10 reb, 5 assists, 42.0 FG% (8-19), 33.3 3P% (1-3)

There are numerous ways to take those numbers. He clearly struggled against high-major competition, albeit in a small sample size. That changed against other non-conference competition, though with varying degrees of efficiency. The biggest takeaway is that he remained a triple threat to score, rebound, or find his teammates for a bucket. It’s not a stretch to say Pierce is as close to a true triple threat as UNC has had in quite some time.

All that aside, what does it mean for his sole season at North Carolina?

More of a slasher than low-post presence or ball-handling playmaker, Pierce either scores at the rim or behind the arc. This is confirmed by his scoring splits last year. Per hoop-math.com, last season 83.2% of his shot attempts were at the rim (42.5%) or behind the arc (40.7%). Of those attempts, he had a success rate of 63.2% at the rim and 32.5% from three. Taking it a step further, 50% of his successful attempts at the rim came off a teammate’s assist.

Most interesting, 81.2% of his three-point makes were also assisted. That’s great news for UNC fans. Assisted three-pointers are a staple of UNC’s offense. Last season, Luke Maye, Nassir Little, Cameron Johnson, Kenny Williams, Brandon Robinson, and Leaky Black all had at least 82% of their three-point makes come off an assist. As the videos above show, he’s also comfortable pulling up off the dribble or attacking in transition. Pierce’s scoring skills will be a perfect rotational fit for UNC’s system.

The second biggest need in UNC’s production is rebounding. UNC lost four of their top five rebounders in Luke Maye, Johnson, Nassir Little, and Kenny Williams. As noted above, that is the one category that Pierce consistently produced against higher-level competition. Pierce will prove his worth by corralling loose balls, starting fast breaks, and accumulating easy put backs. Rebounding is a skill that translates across all levels of competition, largely because it doesn’t just depend on natural talent or athleticism. It’s also a combination of physicality, positioning, effort, and basketball IQ. Pierce brings all those qualities.

After Leaky Black, Pierce is the most versatile player on UNC’s roster. A jack-of-all-trades. That will be helpful because with Cole Anthony, Keeling, and a low post rotation of Garrison Brooks, Armando Bacot, and Sterling Manley, scoring won’t be a primary need. Whatever scoring boost Pierce can give will be a bonus to his other strengths. The ability to play multiple positions, create match-up problems, rebound, and stretch defenses from deep, however, will be required.

At 6-7, Pierce can cause trouble at both small forward and power forward. Smaller wings will struggle to guard Pierce and create offense, while large power forwards may be too slow for his athleticism. Whether he can defend larger post players might be a concern. He wasn’t a defensive stalwart at William & Mary, but some of that was due to consistently banging down low as an undersized four. At UNC, there will be more flexibility to put him in advantageous matchups.

Any projections for Pierce depend on whether you think he’s solely a wing, solely a forward, or will be able to fill in at both. It also depends if you think he’ll start or come off the bench. I’m of the opinion that he’ll be the seventh or eighth man off the bench, so about 15 minutes, 5 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists is a reasonable baseline. If he takes the starting small forward spot from Leaky or B-Rob – a possibility — then adjust your expectations accordingly.

Regardless, UNC’s foray into the graduate transfer market will yield productive results. Pierce fills multiple needs, with an emphasis on versatility and rebounding. UNC will need both of those skills if they want to push for a top seed in March.