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UNC Basketball Position Preview: Post Players

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A return to big-man basketball should have Roy Williams fired up for a season like no other.

North Carolina v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Basketball position previews continue with the post players!

If you aren’t caught up, make sure you also read Akil’s preview of the guards, and Douglas’s preview of the wings.

Post play should see a marked improvement from last season, but like the other two position groups, there are some question marks. Fortunately for Roy Williams, his favorite group has the highest floor, and maybe the highest ceiling.

Overall

Last season’s shambolic post presence was just one symptom of a diseased team. Things may have been different if Armando Bacot hadn’t sprained his ankle against Ohio State. Or if Sterling Manley didn’t have to medically redshirt. Or if Justin Pierce approached 33% of Luke Maye’s production as a stretch-4.

With memories of last season fresh in mind, it can be tough to picture the potential staring at us right in the face. I’m reminded of Laney Boggs in “She’s All That” when I think of the 2020-21 team.

Objectively beautiful. Passes the eye test. Graceful going down the court. But at the last minute, capable of stumbling right into Freddie Prinze Jr’s arms, or in basketball terms, losing at home to Wake Forest.

As talented as the Heels are in the post, Garrison Brooks is the only sure thing (the Taylor Vaughan of the team). The rest of the production will come from three blue-chippers (sophomore Armando Bacot and freshmen Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler); one of whom had an underwhelming, injury-plagued rookie season, while the others will be playing grown men for the first time.

But.

If by season’s end, the production meets the talent? This team has the potential to be very competitive. Let’s get into each player!

Garrison Brooks

It all begins and ends here.

Now a senior and demonstrated team leader, the Tar Heels will go as far as Garrison Brooks can carry them. What is the ceiling for him this year? Well, around the league they think he’s pretty good. Brooks was voted ACC Preseason Player of the Year, and had more than four times as many votes (104) as second place (UVa’s Sam Hauser with 24).

Garrison was known for his defense during his freshman and sophomore seasons. In his career, he has won the defensive player of the game award 33 times. That’s nuts! With the departure of so much offensive firepower last season (Coby, Cam, Luke, [sometimes] Kenny, and Nas) Garrison had to turn it up on offense, and boy did he!

During ACC play, he led the league in scoring with 18.8 ppg. He scored 20 or more points in 13 games, including a seven-game streak, and had 12 double-doubles. But all of this production came while playing 36 mpg in the ACC. With the return of a healthy Armando Bacot, the arrival of two talented freshmen lead guards that can push the tempo higher than Cole Anthony did, a bevy of outside shooters, and Garrison’s own improvement from mid-range, there’s every hope that Brooks can play fewer minutes, and that’s a good thing!

I’m actually of the mindset that for Carolina to have its best season, Garrison cannot win ACC Player of the Year. If he does, that certainly means that he’s putting up numbers like last year (or better) which means Roy is having to count on him to win games. That probably means all of the other variables are coming up short. I wouldn’t mind seeing Garrison’s scoring drop some, his minutes drop more, and his defense remaining at an elite level, to help clean up some of the mistakes his teammates are sure to make.

Don’t let this aspiration be mistaken for hate towards Garrison, though! I don’t want to get roasted by his mom on Twitter, like she did to haters on the day he was announced as preseason Player of the Year:

Armando Bacot

Mando came to Carolina with great fanfare. A McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American, he signaled a return to recruiting prominence after a few years missing out on top post targets. Things did not go as well as Bacot probably envisioned when he signed with Roy Williams. A perfect storm of injuries and ill-design haunted the team, and Bacot was not spared. He gamely played most of the season on a badly sprained ankle, which robbed him of explosion and strength in the low post.

With better health this season, imagine him in the Oregon game, extrapolated to a full season next to Garrison Brooks:

Bacot offers so much to the team. He has size (6’10”, 240). He rebounds, he blocks shots, and he can run. He had 11 double-doubles last year. With an offseason to heal, strengthen, and scrimmage against Tyler Hansbrough, hopefully Mando can turn some of his baby hooks and off-balance layups into dunks through defenders’ chests. Bacot won’t lack for motivation. Last season, if he went down or wasn’t playing well, Justin Pierce would usually come off the bench. That was an unappealing choice for Roy Williams. Now he has Sharpe and Kessler to call up. That’s a BIG difference.

I actually picked Armando Bacot for Most Improved Player in the Tar Heel Blog staff’s basketball predictions, which will come out tomorrow. I believe in him! He seems like a genuinely good dude who is easy to root for, and he is having an incredible college experience, serving as a student-athlete leader, and recently gaining admission to the highly competitive UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Day’Ron Sharpe

There’s some big paws on this puppy. At 6’11” and 265 pounds, this guy is going to be a beast down low.

I’m not quite sure who to compare Day’Ron’s game to from a historical perspective. I kind of get Brice Johnson vibes watching him position in the paint and go up straight for high-percentage, two-hand dunks all the time. He is taller and thicker than Brice was when he graduated, though. Maybe a less explosive Rasheed Wallace?

Whoever he ends up looking like, on his pedigree and size alone, he’s going to be a factor as a freshman for the Heels. He will certainly miss some defensive assignments. He will surely make mistakes in Carolina’s freelance offense. But he will also swat a few shots and dunk on some dudes’ heads.

The best news for Day’Ron is that Roy Williams doesn’t need him to produce immediately like he did with Armando Bacot last season. Day’Ron has the luxury of time on his side, but he probably won’t need a lot of it. Look for his minutes to go up in the middle of ACC play as Bacot’s go down.

Walker Kessler

Kessler is even taller than Sharpe, standing 7’1”. By setting foot in Chapel Hill, he has already helped the team by ensuring that Garrison Brooks can play at the 4 instead of the 5. When watching high school footage of him, it’s impressive how refined Kessler’s play is. He has excellent footwork and touch around the basket. Not yet filled out, he does have good command of his body and uses his strength to carve out space down low.

What makes Kessler so intriguing as a prospect is his shooting ability. He has legit 3-point range and his shooting motion, though slower than most guards, does not have any noticeable hitches or quirks. It’s a smooth, repeatable motion.

Roy Williams wants two post players to run the offense through. He wants to out-rebound teams. Luke Maye’s greatest legacy at UNC (aside from this) will probably be that he opened Roy’s eyes to the possibilities of a stretch-4. Walker Kessler is the next step in that evolution. He has size that Maye lacked. He won’t get as many shots blocked as Maye did. The only issue is that he most certainly won’t be playing in the Dean Dome for four years like Maye. We’ll be lucky to see him for two seasons.

Check out this clip and marvel at the myriad of moves Walker displays in this Georgia state playoff game against future Auburn Tiger (and former UNC target) Jabari Smith:

Walker Kessler will benefit from playing with so many talented bigs at Carolina. He can play the trailing big in Carolina’s secondary break and drop 3’s like Luke Maye. He can fill the lane and use his insane length to get easy dunks like Brandan Wright. Or he can use his excellent footwork and touch close to the basket to get buckets like Tyler Zeller. I’ll be anxious to see how he defends against college players. If he gets pushed around or fails to rebound at a reasonable clip, Roy won’t hesitate to sit him. But if he does well enough, he offers something that none of the other post players do. Kessler’s game can make the Tar Heels really dangerous come March.