Injuries forced Roy Williams and UNC to go pretty deep into its bench during the 2019-2020 season, and that’s saying something for a man who famously enjoys the ability to make five-for-five substitutions without absurd drop-off just to teach his starters a lesson. 10 UNC scholarship players missed at least one entire game due to injury throughout the season, and an 11th, Christian Keeling, was taken out of the lion’s share of at least a couple of games with in-game injuries. One of those, Sterling Manley, missed the entire season, so let’s put him aside for now. The rest were forced into awkward positions and lineups that didn’t entirely make sense when their teammates couldn’t join them, which we spent enough time bemoaning during the season. But that accounts for 12 players. An NCAA Division I men’s basketball team has 13 scholarship players and 2 gameday walk-ons. The people we haven’t talked about yet in our player review series are the ones who, by helping alleviate that awkwardness, could have made good on the “next man up” philosophy that pervades sports. But, for some reason or another, they couldn’t quite get there, and we were left with a very awkward season. This is about looking to the future as well, though, so it might not all be bad! Let’s take a look:
I think a lot of UNC fans are a little perplexed at the case of Brandon Huffman. He came into the program with a lot of work to do both on his conditioning and his technical refinement, but he was far from hopeless. He had a knack for tearing the rim down if he got the ball cleanly anywhere near the circle, and actually had a reasonable jump hook over his left shoulder out to about 8 feet: the kind of touch that showed promise for his development. We’ve now completed his junior year and we haven’t seen much of anything else. He’s been buried on the bench both last year and this one despite UNC not having a legit center last year and having just one this year, and when he did get minutes this year when multiple bigs got in foul trouble, he didn’t do much that we didn’t already know he could do: tore down the rim (5/6 at the rim for the season), had reasonable touch near it (3/6 on 2-pointers away from the rim), and crashed the offensive glass for putbacks (14% Offensive Rebounding Rate, 7 offensive boards, 5 putback attempts). Unfortunately, the limitations in his game were still evident: hard hands, inadequate mobility on offense or defense, propensity for fouling, and tunnel vision: in 52 minutes on the floor, he didn’t record a single assist. In summary, he could provide energy with his dunks and enthusiasm in the perfect situation with a lot of offensive spacing threats and willing passers, but on this roster, which lacked spacing all year long and struggled with basic post entries, he just hadn’t gotten good enough yet at team basketball to contribute.
K.J. Smith isn’t all that different, even though the expectations for him certainly have been. Baby Jet (do doo do do do do), the legacy walk-on given a scholarship for ‘19-’20, was pressed into significant minutes at point guard thanks to the injuries to Cole Anthony, Jeremiah Francis, and Anthony Harris. He gave us reasonable handles, the ability to usually make the easy pass, unselfish leadership, and good free throw shooting: he went 7/8 from the charity stripe. He’s a worthy successor to the Stilman White throne; he proved that he could come in and lead a team the way a point guard should for a couple minutes at a time. But he’s also not more than that. He isn’t a scorer at the ACC level; he was 5/20 from the field (and 1/10 from distance) on the season over the 20 games he played. Taking just one shot a game isn’t even worthy of shot gravity, and this team needed that desperately. He took care of the ball most of the time, with just 9 turnovers in those 20 games, but didn’t elevate the offense, either, with 16 assists. A per-40 rate of 5.2 assists isn’t bad, to be clear, but this team needed more from a player who was going to give sustained minutes at the point guard position. At the end of the day, when this team was reaching into its bench, it needed somebody who could give it some offensive firepower, whatever their other limitations. Smith, though he’ll be an excellent steady hand on a ‘21 lineup with more theoretical offensive ability, just wasn’t that this year, and he saw his minutes all but disappear with Anthony’s return despite Francis and Harris still missing from the lineup.
The days of guys like the aforementioned White, Jackson Simmons, and Wes Miller mean that UNC fans are always looking for the next Tar Heel walk-on to make a major impact on the team. Where better to look for that magic in this particular era than the latter’s little brother, Walker Miller? The lanky sophomore big seemed to overtake Huffman in the lineup as the season went on, and saw spot action in 23 games. We didn’t get to see much of what he could do, but the gist of things is that he actually has some pretty advanced offensive moves if he has just enough space to pull them off: if he sees contact he’s about doomed. Still, he made some buckets, hit 3 out of his 4 free throw attempts, and showed some promise on that end. He grabbed 14 rebounds in his time on the court, which is underwhelming: his rebounding rate was closer to the 6’7 Justin Pierce than the other players his size in the lineup. I think he has a chance to contribute positive minutes here and there like Simmons did for the ‘13-’15 squads, but he definitely needs to bulk up a bit to both maximize his offense and have a chance on defense when he’s needed.
Caleb Ellis, Shea Rush, and Robbie O’Han, it’s been nice knowing you. Ryan McAdoo, we’ll see you next year leading Blue Steel.