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Midseason Review: UNC Basketball Freshmen

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UNC’s talented group of freshmen have had a decent year so far, but there’s work to be done

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina State at North Carolina
I’m pretty sure he made this one.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

After the catatonia induced by the end of the 2016 season finally wore off, Tar Heel fans started looking at the team’s outlook for 2017. Although we would be saying goodbye to two great players and fan favorites in Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, it was clear that UNC would be returning many key players from a team that made a National Championship run, and that once again, Roy Williams would be working with an experienced, veteran squad.

The expected starting lineup consisted of solely upperclassmen, with another senior expected to be one of the first players off of the bench. With sophomores Kenny Williams and Luke Maye primed to take big steps after a year in the NCAA this meant that the incoming freshman class of Tony Bradley, Brandon Robinson, and Seventh Woods, as talented as they were, were not expected by many to have major roles on the 2016-2017 team. We were excited about them, no doubt, but we thought their times to shine would be in 2018 and beyond.

Boy, were we wrong. Some of it has been due to unforeseeable injury circumstances, but all three freshmen have shone during the first half of the season. With players’ roles becoming more defined as the conference schedule gets into full swing, let’s take a look at what we’ve seen from each Tar Heel freshman so far:

Tony Bradley:

As this class’ lone 5-star recruit, Bradley’s debut in a Tar Heel uniform was predictably hyped by just about every Tar Heel fan you could find. From his high school tape, it’s easy to see why; his long arms, touch around the basket, and obvious skill with the ball in his hands all looked like they’d translate easily to the college game, and with Roy Williams’ history with big men, there was a lot to like about Bradley’s future. Somehow, though, Bradley has outperformed even the lofty expectations of Tar Heel fans.

Despite being 7th on the team in minutes, Bradley is 5th in points. His offensive efficiency is an absurd 130.3, and that’s the part that’s been least surprising because he was known to be skilled around the basket. Where Bradley has really surprised has been with his rebounding and defense. UNC fans have probably heard this more than enough, but it’s astounding nonetheless: Tony Bradley is the best offensive rebounder in the country, with an ORB% near 24%.

Defensively, he has held his own as well where many thought he would struggle given his relatively slight build, accumulating a defensive rating of 93.6. He has 12 blocks on the season, giving him by far the best blocked shot percentage on the team, and has even picked up 6 steals. He also hasn’t been fazed by the magnitude of playing for UNC, being level-headed enough to seal the Tennessee game with a block in the final seconds. He’s also given us this:

Unfortunately, Bradley’s season hit a roadblock when he suffered a concussion against Wake Forest, but he seems to have recovered and has been reported to be active for the game against Boston College. We hope that he is truly okay and ready to continue wreaking havoc for the Heels.

Seventh Woods:

Woods gained astronomical popularity when he was still in middle school when a video of him dunking went viral, but due to a series of nagging knee and ankle injuries, more or less dropped off the map during his later years of high school. This suited Williams and UNC just fine, and they proceeded to give Woods the opportunity to play at his childhood dream school. During the buildup to the season, there was a lot of excitement surrounding Woods and his athleticism, and while it hasn’t fully translated yet, there have been a few moments this season where Woods has made Tar Heel Nation’s collective jaw drop to the floor.

While he certainly had his struggles early in the season and even coming into ACC play with the pace of the college game (so much so that Williams took to calling him “Sixth” or “Eighth” in practice, claiming that he hadn’t yet earned the name of the player Williams had recruited), Woods seems to be slowly figuring it out. His A:TO ratio on the season is a sub-par 27:29, but in his last four games, it has been a much nicer 6:2. He is also third on the team in assist percentage, and from the eye test, he’s a very good passer; his touch and creativity with the ball are very impressive.

His jump shot and free throw stroke have been notable weaknesses, though he does get to the free throw line often just as a Carolina point guard should. His minutes have begun declining with Theo Pinson’s return, but as a point guard of the future, Woods has given fans reason to be excited.

Brandon Robinson

Alas, Robinson seems to be the latest Tar Heel freshman to be afflicted with the “Freshman Tar Heel guards can’t shoot” curse, following in the illustrious footsteps of Kenny Williams, Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige, and P.J. Hairston. Known in high school as a lanky shooter with a smooth, quick release, Robinson has yet to really find the range as a Tar Heel, shooting only 22.7% from beyond the arc. Oddly enough, his jumper has looked like money when he’s taking long two-pointers, and his two-point field goal percentage is a respectable 45%.

He’s certainly not let that stop him from helping his team win, though. He has a solid 20:11 assist:turnover ratio for the season, using his background as a former point guard to create opportunities from the wing. Before Pinson’s return, Robinson led the Heels in assisted dunks/40 minutes, per Adrian Atkinson, reflecting his ability to get to the hoop and then dish to his bigs. He’s also played with a lot of energy and physicality, giving the Heels an edge that some have said they have lacked in the past.

I am still firmly of the belief that this year’s edition of the Heels’ willingness to get on the floor and fight for the ball is due in no small part to Robinson’s scrappy play. He seems to make his teammates scrappier as well, and that’s a very good quality to have coming off the bench. It’s early, but Robinson’s minutes seem to have taken the biggest hit with Pinson’s return, as just about his only minutes in the last two games have been near the end after the outcome is no longer in doubt. His experience so far this year, though, can give Heels confidence in their wing play in the years to come.