I’ll address the obvious point first: Caleb Love would also, obviously, be a more-than-worthy selection for this entirely meaningless honor. His 22 points were significantly flashier than Garcia’s equivalent contribution and that does mean something as far as elevating the team’s energy and pulling it with him as opposed to a quieter contribution that doesn’t have that same effect on momentum — Love ultimately did have a higher +/- than Garcia, for whatever you think that’s worth. But I’m going with Garcia here for a couple of reasons: first, Love is significantly more likely than Garcia to get POG honors in multiple games for the rest of the season, so I’d like to spread some shine around; second, Garcia’s performance was a significant step-up for a position group that needed it, while Love turned in a performance slightly better than what’s expected of him; third, Love scored really well but didn’t have as good a floor game as we’ve come to expect of him while Garcia had more than 5 rebounds for the first time since the Purdue game. Okay, that’s enough for the comparisons. On to talking about Garcia’s game on its own merit.
Dawson Garcia had a much-needed bounce back game against Elon after a recent slump that had seen him get inconsistent minutes and produce accordingly, which is to say, inconsistently. His three-point shooting had been fine, even great, but his defense, board presence, and interior scoring were all bad enough that he hadn’t been seen by Hubert Davis as somebody who would help UNC win in large doses — and Hubert has not been shy about not playing players for the sake of playing them if they’re not going to make the team better on the day in question. Against Elon, though, with Armando Bacot in quick foul trouble and Brady Manek’s inside and outside game not making the trip to the Smith Center, Davis didn’t have much choice but to turn to Garcia, and the transfer delivered on all fronts. He hit 50% of his field goals at 6/12, but was 2/4 from three-point range and also showed some toughness on the interior and drew a bunch of fouls, going 8/10 from the free-throw line — turning his 12 field goal attempts into a very efficient 22 points.
But, as said before, scoring wasn’t all he did. Garcia’s primary extra contribution was on the offensive glass, where he rebounded five UNC misses over Elon’s smaller lineup on a night where extra possessions were needed with how badly UNC was shooting. He finished with 7 rebounds total, and could still stand to play a little bigger on the defensive end, particularly on the boards. But, that said, after multiple games with a negative Defensive Box Plus/Minus per Bart Torvik, Garcia’s performance against Elon was just barely positive — and even a neutral defensive performance for Garcia is a huge win for him and the Heels at this point in his development. As he gets more comfortable in Davis’ scheme and learns to play more physically in the post, he’s got the tools to be a very good, switchable defender, but as he’s learning, not being a liability while his more comfortable teammates continue to create the havoc that they have been the past few games will be pretty valuable, and it’s been rare so far as the season has started.
My favorite thing about Garcia’s game, though, was this: in his previous successful offensive perofrmances, against (especially) Purdue and Michigan, his offense came in spurts while he disappeared for long stretches, and it also often felt like he was playing as an individual rather than as part of a team — a lot of empty-calorie points, a lot of individual offense instead of team basketball. That wasn’t the case against Elon — he maintained an offensive presence throughout and played within the team, earning him every one of the 32 minutes regardless of necessity. That’s a huge development for Garcia and the team, and I hope to see more of this kind of cohesion going forward.