When Joel Berry announced that he would be returning to North Carolin to try and reach another Final Four, many—both within Tar Heels fandom and outside it—were skeptical. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson were going to be extremely hard losses to overcome. In Paige, the Heels were losing the heart and soul of the team, the player that every member looked to on the court when they needed a lift and the guy that they looked to off the court as a liaison to Coach Roy Williams.
In Johnson, the Heels lost arguably the NCAA’s best big man of the 2015-2016 season, an aggressive rebounder, astoundingly efficient shooter, and ferocious dunker. If Paige was the heart of the team, Johnson was the heart of the fanbase. He had the power to singlehandedly ignite a crowd in ways that few can, with a powerful dunk or a jaw-dropping blocked shot.
Joel James’ loss is not to be forgotten, either; though he was not as decorated as either of his classmates, his contributions as a depth player and locker room guy were invaluable to the team. These were not, again, going to be easy qualities to replace.
To their credit, the returning cast from the 2015-2016 team has improved by an even bigger margin than most expected. On its own, though, in a vastly improved college basketball field from last year, that wouldn’t be enough to accomplish the goals that Berry set for this team.
Enter Tony Bradley. In my opinion, he is the primary reason that UNC is arguably the best team in the country right now, more than Berry’s absurd start to the season, more than Kennedy Meeks’ resurgence, and more than Justin Jackson’s newfound confidence. Carolina is a team that emphasizes the post, and Bradley’s immediate impact there has meant that this team hasn’t missed a beat with Johnson gone.
Coming out of high school, Bradley was ranked anywhere between the 16th and 26th best recruit in the country. As if it has to be said, that’s really good. One of the more humorous moments in my following of UNC recruiting was reading this gem (link to that paper that will remain nameless) from Mohamed Bamba (one of 2017’s top recruits) answering questions about UNC’s seeming lack of top-tier recruits in recent years:
“Tony Bradley is pretty good,” Bamba said, ... countering the perception that UNC hasn’t lured a best-of-the-best prospect in a while. “Tony Bradley is really good.”
So, yeah. Tony Bradley was known to be pretty good at basketball. In recent years, though, even highly-ranked big men have taken at least a year to get acclimated to playing at UNC, which tempered many Tar Heel fans’ expectations about what Bradley could do this year.
Brice Johnson, though he wasn’t as highly touted as Bradley, struggled with playing in control for his first two years. Kennedy Meeks had to work on his weight before he was able to be as effective as he could be. Isaiah Hicks played out of position his freshman year. So it’s been a while since we saw a Carolina big man come in totally ready to play, with the team prepared for him to play.
Jake looked at Bradley’s stats yesterday, so I’ll just bring up the important ones here. He’s averaging 17 minutes per game. In those 17 minutes, he’s putting in 9.2 points a game at a 60% FG rate, pulling in 6.1 rebounds a game at an 18.8% TRB rate, and has 5 blocked shots on the season. His offensive (136.1) and defensive (89.8) ratings are comparable to those of Joel Berry. He’s posted multiple double-doubles in his first ten college games. Like Jake said, the stats seem to confirm that Tony Bradley is good at basketball.
Further than that, however, Bradley has just looked so comfortable on the court. With the possible exception of the Wisconsin game, which was the last of three consecutively games played, Bradley has never looked overwhelmed or out of his depth on a college court. His array of offensive moves has befuddled college defenders just like it did his high school opponents, he’s rebounding with toughness against bigger competition than he has faced before, and he’s not afraid to swallow guys whole—just look at the page image. Even on defense, where it was thought that he would need some time to catch up, he’s been more than solid, as confirmed by the previously referenced offensive rating. He has, I suppose, struggled shooting free throws, but most big men do at one point or another.
At the end of last year, UNC lost one of the best post scorers in the country. In Bradley, they’ve found another one. It’s allowed them to keep playing Carolina basketball, which means a lot of things. Coach Williams has been able to run his preferred offense, even with the experimental lineups that he has been using in the non-conference schedule, because when Kennedy Meeks and/or Isaiah Hicks is out, Bradley has been able to anchor the post.
As statistically the country’s best offensive rebounder, he’s been able to create second chance opportunities for his team. And just like his classmates, he’s scrappy, having gone to the floor multiple times to try and create some sort of advantage for his squad. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rest of the team has been hitting the deck more frequently this year than last; Bradley, as well as Brandon Robinson, has likely played a major role in this newfound aggression.
No one can really replicate Brice Johnson’s ability to fire up a crowd with a court-shattering dunk, but these are the kind of effort plays that suffice almost as well. Bradley’s ability to do that, in addition to his basketball prowess, have been essential to the team’s fire, and that fire is what can take this Tar Heel team as far as they want come the postseason.
The saying usually goes something like “freshmen always look good on paper,” but with Carolina fandom, that’s almost gotten switched around. The Heels have for so long been a team based around veteran squads with young talent backing them up that we have gotten used to relying on older players over younger ones. With Bradley, though, I think it might have caused us to underestimate him, because it is primarily because of his play that the Heels are not missing Brice Johnson as much as everyone thought they would.