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UNC Basketball Position Preview: Guards

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A couple of dynamite freshmen will look to power a turnaround from last year’s misfortunes

Basketball: USA Men’s Junior National Team Minicamp Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to believe with no preseason tournaments or televised prep or even Late Night with Roy, but we are just 9 days from getting UNC men’s basketball back! Roy Williams and the Heels will open the season on November 25th with a game against the College of Charleston Cougars, where they will embark on a quest to put last season’s woes entirely behind them. The roster looks drastically different from that of last year’s team, with the spots left open by 2 transfers, 3 graduations, and an early departure to the NBA Draft being filled by a 6-man recruiting class. And even with the cloud of COVID-19 hanging over the nation, it seems as though the team has been able to get practices and workouts in relatively on schedule; there haven’t been reports of any positive cases on the team yet.

Over the next few days, we’ll be previewing the entire roster ahead of the season, detailing what we know, what we don’t, and what we can expect from each position group. We’re going to start out, as I’m sure you’ve guessed from the title, with the guards, which we’re defining roughly as “potential ballhandlers.” The position group has a completely new look from last year, with two high-profile freshmen leading the way — with play styles a little different from what we’ve seen in Tar Heel Blue the last several years. Without further ado, let’s get into this preview.

Overall

Roy Williams’ system requires excellence at the ballhandling positions of a very specific type. He emphasizes on-ball defense, ability to get to the rim, throwing entry passes, and pace in transition above all other traits; shooting ability, athleticism, general court vision, and excellent ballhandling are the kinds of things you might think are key to a point guard’s skillset, but they’re kind of auxiliary for Coach Williams — you probably need one of those things in addition to his keys in order to really shine, but not all of them. He also likes having multiple ballhandlers on the floor together: he’d prefer to have a lead guard and an off guard, but he’d also prefer to have an off guard who can bring the ball up the floor rather than waste time looking for his point guard. Especially with UNC’s current roster construction that has more proven talent at the big positions than at the wings, having multiple ballhandlers who can stress the perimeter is going to be key for this offense to take off. Thankfully, that’s exactly what the guard portion of the roster is built for. Caleb Love and R.J. Davis, the freshmen, were both high school point guards who can play off-ball when necessary thanks to their scoring prowess, but also get up and down the floor quickly and can make all the right passes though they’re not flashy playmakers. Behind them are two veterans who provide experience, even though they are at best complementary players — and if they don’t have talent around them, they’re not capable, like Love and Davis should be, of shouldering a team themselves.

Caleb Love

The 6’3’’ Love is the latest in the lineage of elite freshmen point guards with a first name starting with “C” to call Chapel Hill home, and after the polar opposite games of Coby White and Cole Anthony, Love brings something a little bit in between the two. Like White, he prides himself on his speed in transition and ability to get to the rim, but he doesn’t quite have the unorthodox finishing ability that White possessed. He also doesn’t need it quite as much, because with his reasonable vertical explosiveness and raptor-like wingspan, he’s much more capable of finishing above the rim, and certainly over defenders, than White, much like Anthony flashed in the brief time his right knee was structurally all the way okay. He’s not that level of athlete, but his size makes up for it. His floor game kind of hybridizes the two as well: he’s got slightly better court vision than White did but not to the level of Anthony, but he’s also a more willing passer and facilitator than Anthony was despite this, especially as a senior after there were some questions about his ability to involve his teammates following his first three years of high school. Defensively, he’s a pest, but a little inconsistent, as high school players are. He uses his wingspan to frustrate ballhandlers and get to passes when he’s defending off-ball; it’s just up to the UNC coaches to both get him doing it consistently and increase his IQ on that side of the ball as a team defender. And, like both of his predecessors, he’s developed into an excellent pull-up shooter after having some question marks on his long-range shot through his first three years of high school. Now, he’s an absolute weapon from beyond the arc to the point where it might be his biggest asset, which the Heels sorely need after a historically bad shooting year in 2019-20. He has a quicker release than either White or Anthony, which is good because he doesn’t quite have either White’s footwork or Anthony’s handles to free himself up that way. He’s got great agility and a nice crossover, just not so much the stepback or complicated combo moves that those two did. He’s not a perfect player; he’s much more effective at using his handle to get space for a shot than for a drive in the halfcourt and his three-point shooting percentage of 35% in high school is a little worrying (though he took a bunch of difficult shots). Overall, though, he’s an uber-exciting player who should bring UNC back to the transition game they lacked last year, while also providing them with ample bucket-getting ability in the halfcourt.

R.J. Davis

Davis’ profile is a little more familiar, I think, to Heels fans than Love’s is. The 5’11’’ -ish guard He’s an undersized score-first player who’s got bundles of talent that’s only really limited by that size. He’s got phenomenal handles and can regularly be seen taking ankles in his highlight clips, can score at all three levels including some wicked creativity and touch at the rim, and he can run and change directions with the best of them. On the downside, he’s got a lot of work to do as far as his passing mentality, as he’s liable to overdribble, and his size is a legitimate question as far as him getting bumped off his scoring spots, especially inside the arc where there isn’t as much space for him to operate. He’s plenty physical for his size, but it’s an open question how he can deal with the grown men of the ACC. On defense, he is a menace; he probably can’t defend more than opposing point guards but he already shows very good understanding of team defense and the ability to frustrate ballhandlers with his quick hands and sound positioning. He should play really well next to Love, who should be able to offer him some space to operate with his own threat as a shooter and driver. He’ll succeed most, though, if he is first able to move the ball more effectively than he did in high school, and second able to find a way to translate his scoring touch inside the arc to the college game despite his limitations — if he can find the creative angles and floater game we’ve seen from other recent Tar Heels who preferred to avoid physicality (White, Justin Jackson, and Nate Britt come to mind), he’ll be a monumental asset.

Andrew Platek

I’d go so far as to say that until Anthony Harris is healthy (more on him in a future article!), at least one of Davis and Love should be on the court at basically all times — that’s how much the rest of UNC’s presumed backcourt isn’t prepared to shoulder the kind of load that this team is going to need in the beginning. But because Harris isn’t healthy yet, the senior Platek is going to have a reasonable-sized role to play at the beginning of the season, and it’s going to be important that he doesn’t play like a player he isn’t. While he was recruited to Chapel Hill as a marksman, that hasn’t borne out in competition his first three years of college basketball. If you take out a 3/5 performance against Western Carolina, his respectable 37% from distance as a freshman goes down to 31%, and his sophomore and junior years were just bad, totaling to a career average of 28.3% from downtown. I don’t know if he just never adjusted to the size and speed of the ACC or if he’s got a mental block, but combined with 61% from the charity stripe his first three years of college basketball, odds aren’t very good that he turns into the player he was thought to be this year.

That doesn’t mean he offers nothing on the court, though! Last year, for all his faults that were exacerbated by a team with very little spacing, Platek was the one player who consistently got Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot the ball in the right spots, knowing where to place his post entries so they didn’t lose position. He isn’t a distributor in the classic sense, but he racked up assists last year just by getting post scorers the ball how they wanted it — and with even more post talent on the team this year, that’s a valuable skill. He also turned into a pretty good team defender. His size and lack of athleticism makes him pretty easy to bully in the post, but he’s learned to read his man and anticipate his movement so he isn’t easy to blow by with or without the ball. He’s not a lockdown defender, but he makes a good defensive lineup better. If he can focus on playing those two roles, while moving the ball within the offense otherwise, he’s a reasonable complementary player to a good lineup. As any pickup player knows, there is nothing worse to have as a teammate than somebody who only thinks they’re a shooter. Platek has been that in the past and it’s to the detriment of his team. But he does enough well that if he isn’t that, he can be a positive addition.

K.J. Smith

Ah, the Baby Jet. One of three legacy players on this year’s team, and easily the one with the best chance at playing time, Kenny Junior was pressed into extended service last eyar thanks to Cole Anthony and Anthony Harris’ injury issues. He proved himself to be, while generally an offensive non-presence, somebody with knowledge of Roy Williams’ system and an ability to find scorers. Even on a depleted roster, Smith had an assist percentage over 21%, which is very good generally and nearly unbelievable given the scoring limitations of last year’s team. Like Platek, with really good players around him, he can stick to what he can do and not hamper the team. He can keep the offense moving and get his teammates the ball in their preferred spots. On the flip side, he isn’t much of a scorer at any level unless a defender takes themselves out of the play, and he’s also not much of a defender, which is a death knell at point guard for a Roy Williams team. He’s pretty much suited for spot duty when Davis and Love are unavailable, but unlike even Platek, he doesn’t have enough strengths to make him a reasonable complementary player for extended periods of time.

Check back in tomorrow for the next installment of our position previews!