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UNC Basketball: Stature

Standing tall amongst the trees.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

I was often last picked in pick-up basketball games. I was never tall, nor did I ever really show any potential to eventually become tall. Even now I can’t blame my peers for choosing height over someone who would float around the perimeter and try to set up pick-and-pop situations with guys who only really wanted to run iso after iso. I’ve written before about trying out for my high school basketball team as a freshman, as well as the subsequent four years spent on the wrestling team. I’ve laid out the reason I still adore a good mid-range game to this day—because it was a way a short, slow kid like me could make some space to steal a bucket or two from the tall folks. Basketball was never my sport, but I held on longer than I should have done, because I was a Tar Heel fan, and that gave me an inordinate amount of hope.

In 2005, I was wrapping up the fifth grade, getting ready to move on the middle school and the organized sports teams that awaited me there. The dream was still alive as far as I was concerned; I was only a growth spurt away from being the player I imagined myself to be in my driveway. I knew my parents were on the shorter side, but I wasn’t too worried; after all, Raymond Felton was only 6’1”, and he became a national champion that year. The very next season, Wes Miller took over the point guard spot; he wasn’t even six feet tall! I made the team in middle school, for what it’s worth, but didn’t see a whole lot of playing time (on account of being short and slow—a troubling combination for a would-be hooper, and a pretty easy decision for a coach).

In my freshman year of high school, as I spent my after-school hours at wrestling practice hearing basketballs bounce down the hallway as the basketball team practiced, I began to think there wasn’t much of a future for me in the rarified air around the rim. That growth spurt I had been so sure of came and went far too quickly to make me a threat in the post, and I was never quick enough to create my own shots off the dribble. So I learned double-leg takedowns and cradles, playing pickup ball in my free time and telling myself that maybe I’d try out next year. I mean, I was watching Ty Lawson bring the ball up the floor for the Tar Heels; he was only an inch or two taller than me.

Marcus Paige is an even six feet, and did everything that he could to be a national champion. Joel Berry II is listed at six feet, as well, and was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player en route to winning it all the very next season. Obviously, I no longer aspire to those (proverbial) heights; I never came close to having the skills that these guys do. Now, I just watch and cheer.

RJ Davis is an absolute joy to watch play basketball. When he’s on, it’s poetry in motion, only he’s spoken word recited in double-time. The threat from three opens up the slashing drives that happen like a slingshot being let go—a sudden turning of the corner; a disappearing act in the eye of the defender. In Monday night’s win over Louisville, Davis played well on both ends of the floor (as Brandon discusses here) but perhaps never better than late in the game when he got an unfortunate Cardinal on his hip and kicked off a dazzling chain of events—a gorgeous pocket pass to a cutting Brady Manek on the baseline, who in turn dished to a wide open Armando Bacot for an easy dunk. Hockey assists aren’t counted in basketball, unfortunately, but that would be on my short list for top hockey assist of the year for the Tar Heels if they were.

It’s so much fun to watch an incredibly skilled player impact a game while being the smallest player on the court. It’s an echo of everything I aspired to be as a kid and a clear picture of what there is to love about college sports in general and this year’s Tar Heel team in particular. A lot of my Tar Heel heroes of the past have fit that bill.

Raymond Felton was 6’1” and a champion in his junior season. Ty Lawson was 5’11” and a champion in his junior season. Joel Berry II was a generous 6’0” and a champion in his junior season. RJ Davis is 5’11” and only a sophomore.

Whatever else you want to make of this season, the development of RJ Davis has been incredibly fun to watch. There’s plenty more I could say, but I’m trying to keep it short.