clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

UNC Basketball 2017-2018 Preview: Freshmen

There are a lot of new faces in the Dean Dome this season

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The University of North Carolina has been represented in the last two NCAA Championship games, proving along the way that even in the age of one-and-done, it’s not imperative that your cornerstones be from the top of the latest RSCI board. It’s a fight that fans of college basketball have been fighting since the inception of the NBA’s one-and-done rule, and one that UNC fans have adopted wholeheartedly as the program has created success through multi-year players.

Because of this somehow contrarian attitude towards today’s college basketball environment, though, I think we as UNC fans tend to take a bit too hard a stance on the other side of the aisle. We say freshmen, practically by definition, shouldn’t be ready to produce in a big way, and sometimes even that the method that has become UNC’s over the past several seasons is better than the highly-touted approach that guys like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski have taken, which is the kind of elitist attitude that fans of UNC, a flagship public institution, should be avoiding. The facts of the matter are:

  1. All three of those coaches have appeared in two national title games this decade. That’s right, there have been just two national championships since 2010 that didn’t feature Duke, Kentucky, or UNC.
  2. UNC will need its freshmen to produce, and big-time, if they want to challenge for the NCAA crown again this year.

After losing six scholarship players to graduation and/or the NBA, this is a bit of a reloading year for UNC. Not a rebuilding year, because a lot of big pieces from last year’s team remain. There are, however, some notable holes to fill, and UNC brought in a massive recruiting class this year to try and do so. Let’s start with the most obvious:

Post Players:

It’s been beaten to death but it doesn’t make the fact less true: UNC lost 74% of its rebounding production from positions 3-5. Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley, and Justin Jackson were UNC’s top four rebounders, and all are gone. Theo Pinson and Luke Maye, both able players on the glass, remain, but the team needs a true post presence on the glass. Scoring can come in many forms, but rebounding isn’t quite as forgiving. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the frontcourt freshmen.

Garrison Brooks (6’9”, 215 lbs)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Out of UNC’s three scholarship freshman big men, Garrison Brooks came in with the most fanfare. Not only is he the highest rated according to most recruiting services, but he had the highest-profile recruitment, originally committing to then decommitting from Mississippi State in a complicated series of events. The amount of work he had to put in just to become a Tar Heel, beyond excelling on the court and fulfilling any character and classroom requirements Roy Williams may have had for him, is commendable and speaks to his high character, work ethic, and passion for UNC. These are all great intangible qualities that will help the program during Brooks’ tenure in the Dean Smith Center.

It doesn’t hurt that he’s a very good player. The Lafayette, Alabama, product was rated as a 4-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, and ESPN, and anywhere from the best to 3rd best player in his home state. Offensively, he has an impressive face-up game, with a smooth-looking jump shot, decent handles, and very good footwork around the rim. He can post up with the same footwork, but doesn’t attack the hoop quite as aggressively when his back is to the basket, preferring to create space for a hook shot or runner. It’s not a bad move to have; Kennedy Meeks particularly used it as a go-to last season to great effect. Brooks has some touch and will only improve, but right now he’s better facing the basket than playing down low. He’s also a very smart basketball player and knows how to pass out of the post, play high-low, and get the ball away from a double team.

Brooks is also a very strong young man, which helps him tremendously on the boards and on defense. He doesn’t have the rebounding instincts of Meeks or the athleticism of Brice Johnson, but he will not be bullied when he goes after the ball. He shouldn’t be expected to be the next great Tar Heel rebounder, but he has the tools to be a good one. He also is a very accomplished shot-blocker due primarily to his basketball IQ, as he is a decent but not outstanding athlete.

As mentioned previously, Brooks’ most natural offensive fit is more as a face-up power forward than a low-post center. Defensively, though, it remains to be seen whether he has the lateral ability to play on the perimeter, as he will have to as a power forward in the modern game of basketball. This season should be good for getting his feet wet, as he will likely start at center defensively, easing him into the speed on the perimeter in the NCAA, while having more control over the painted area than a traditional UNC center would. His AAU coach has confidence in his defensive potential:

I'd label him as a power forward, but he's good enough with his body to where he can guard bigger kids. He's versatile, he can guard a '4' man and has the intelligence to guard others."

- Chris Monroe, AAU coach

Brandon Huffman (6’10”, 250)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Huffman committed to UNC just three weeks after receiving an offer, having already gotten scholarship offers from Clemson, UConn, South Carolina, and Indiana, among others. Every word he’s said since then has been bursting with excitement about being a Tar Heel. It’s hard not to root for him as a UNC fan when he shows this much love for the school and joy to be a part of it.

His play is going to make him really easy to root for, too, because he has the kind of explosiveness that gets people out of their seats. The kid from Goldsboro, NC, is a big-time rim-rattler; he intends to dunk just about everything he touches near the rim. Unlike Brooks, Huffman profiles as a center through-and-through, with his thick body and willingness to play through contact down low. If he isn’t dunking, he’s often getting to the free throw line. He does also have a fairly consistent jump hook over his left shoulder if pushed away from the rim, but his footwork isn’t polished enough for him to consistently create the requisite space on post-ups against high-level college competition. He has the ability; he just needs to be coached up.

He has the same kind of aggression on defense, where he has already impressed with five blocks against Barton College in the exhibition game. The level of competition in the regular season and beyond will be higher, but it’s a promising start for him. His size and strength help him with his on-ball defense; it’s a tough ask of anybody to move him around to get to their spots. He does have a tendency to foul unnecessarily on the contest, a product of his aggressiveness in going for blocks. Like with Brooks, the UNC coaching staff will be able to ease him in by rotating him in with his teammates, teaching him to play defense without fouling without having to worry about minutes being unavailable.

Huffman is, make no mistake, a developmental player. His basketball IQ is still improving, though he had a very good high-low assist to Brooks in the exhibition against Barton College. He has shown the physical ability, touch, and basketball skill, though, to make it look like his development will be worthwhile. In the meantime, we’ll still be able to enjoy him trying to tear the rims off opponents’ hoops.

Sterling Manley (6’10, 230)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Huffman, Manley committed to UNC within a month of receiving his offer. Unlike Huffman, Manley is from Ohio, making it very cool that he had that kind of love for UNC. Manley had some bad luck with injuries during his high school career, suffering two major leg injuries during his time of most physical growth. He is, by all accounts, fully healthy and ready to go, and hopefully he can make his injuries a distant memory.

Manley is the best rebounder in UNC’s incoming class. He reads the ball off the rim very well and has extraordinary hands, frequently rebounding far outside his area. His hands are quick and strong, and he has the height and length to rebound away from his body over other players without fouling over the back. He has a lot of polish in his rebounding game as well, reminiscent of last year’s freshman post phenom Tony Bradley. He secures the ball and keeps it high and away from attackers regularly. In contrast with his classmates, his post position does not seem as defined as theirs. He has the size to be a center, but his offensive skillset is much more that of a power forward, with excellent touch on his midrange jumper. On a miniscule sample size, his free throw stroke against Barton College looked picturesque, showing his touch and potential as a face-up midrange player. Defensively, Manley is an excellent shot-blocker, with excellent timing and patience.

Possibly as a result of Manley’s injury history, it seems that his body, the full extent of which he doesn’t have much experience with, doesn’t always seem to listen to him right away. This is most evident with his footwork, which is simply not quick enough or clean enough for high-level college basketball. It’s clear that Manley knows what he is supposed to be doing, he just doesn’t have the comfort with his body that he needs in order to execute. He also doesn’t have a ton of lower body strength, which hampers his ability to make full use of his height whether he’s shooting or rebounding. This can be improved upon, though, particularly as he is just coming off getting his lower body fully healthy. Even at his best, though, he will likely never be an extremely explosive player. This isn’t a bad thing, but it’s worth noting.

Manley should make an impact somewhere between that of Huffman and Brooks this season. He is definitely a developmental prospect, particularly as a post player, but his offensive touch and defensive ability are tangible benefits that would fit on a college court today, and I expect that to be the case as the season begins. His minutes may be limited as he adjusts to playing a college schedule coming off occasional minutes restrictions due to injury, but he has the tools to play.

Guards:

UNC already had a loaded backcourt with the returns of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson to go with a solid bench consisting of Brandon Robinson, Seventh Woods, and Kenny Williams, but there wasn’t a lot of proven floor-spacing ability there, with only Berry making more than 35% of his three-pointers out of that group. Williams was an excellent shooter out of high school, yes, and Pinson stretches the floor with his passing ability, but the Heels needed more. Roy Williams went all-out, then, on finding players who could add some firepower to the perimeter, and between this class and graduate transfer Cameron Johnson, he seems to have found it.

Andrew Platek (6’3”, 195)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing a theme here, Platek committed to UNC a month after visiting campus, gushing,

"It was a gorgeous day outside so the campus looked even better than normal. It's a great place. I got to sit down and talk to Coach (Roy) Williams for what seemed like hours, with my parents. The facilities they have are top notch and everyone just loves their basketball."

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

An aspect of Platek, from Guilderland, New York, that may be underrated due to his playing style is his size. He is a legitimate 6’3”, some outlets reporting maybe even an inch taller, which covers up some of his athletic limitations. He can actually finish above the rim in the open court, a non-negligible detail. It also helps him on defense as guards cannot simply shoot or pass over him like they can when they have a significant size advantage.

Platek’s style fits just about every coaching cliche you can imagine. He plays scrappy. He understands the game and makes good passes. He’s a physical, in-your-face defender who gets his hands into passing lanes. He runs the floor really well and knows how to finish in transition. None of these are bad things, they’re just lines you have to be wary of because they’re so often indicative of lazy or biased analysis. In Platek’s case, they all fit.

The reason he was recruited, though, is his three-point jumper, which looks as good as any we’ve seen in Chapel Hill over the past several years. When he gets a good look, he buries it, displaying great form, touch, and balance. There’s not much else to say about it other than that it’s good.

It is, however, a bit streaky, as Platek’s three-point percentage took a sizeable hit his senior year of high school. One reason that has been offered for this is that he has seen more hard closeouts and had trouble adjusting, which will have to be fixed if he is to continue his shooting prowess into the college game. He will also have to make up for his physical limitations against opposing players, though he seems to have the basketball IQ to do so.

Platek may be buried behind an extremely talented backcourt this year, but don’t be surprised to see him if UNC needs to shoot itself out of a hole. He has the shooting and passing ability to make it happen for himself and others.

Jalek Felton (6’4”, 190)

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina Midnight Madness Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC fans were certainly familiar with Felton’s family name, as his uncle Raymond starred for the University from 2002-2005. The younger Felton committed to UNC all the way back during his sophomore year of high school, showing a commitment to and belief in the school that shouldn’t go unnoticed now that the NCAA investigation is over.

A five-star recruit on some sites but not others, Felton, from Mullins, South Carolina, is one of the best freshman point guards in the country. Yes, point guards. No matter what you may read on various outlets covering UNC athletics, Felton is not a “shoot first” guard, or a “combo guard,” or anything but a point guard with the size and scoring ability to also play off-ball. His scouting reports are first and foremost about his rare court vision, ballhandling, and passing ability, and only then do they mention anything about scoring. He had seven assists in UNC’s open exhibition, easily highest on the team. So can we stop doing him a disservice and calling him something he isn’t, perpetuating a myth based on the misconception that freshmen are necessarily immature? Please?

So let’s talk about those strengths. As alluded to before, Felton is a ballhandler the likes of whom UNC hasn’t seen wearing Carolina blue in a long, long time. He creates space effortlessly and with a variety of moves, setting up the pass, drive, or shot. His footwork is outstanding, and he covers ground in ways that seem impossible. His speed on the dribble has been compared to last year’s top-5 pick De’Aaron Fox, and while he isn’t quite at that level, just to be mentioned in that air tells you a lot about what he can do with the ball at his fingertips. His point guard instincts are also excellent, as he sees the floor extremely well and knows how to deliver the ball anywhere he wants. Of note is his proclivity to pass (and drive) to his his off side, his left, causing some confusion for opposing defenses.

Now, just because he’s a point guard doesn’t mean he’s not a scorer. On the contrary, Felton is an excellent penetrator and finisher around the rim. Continuing a UNC point guard tradition, Felton has a reliable floater which helps him finish against bigger and/or stronger players. He uses creative ball fakes and unique gathers to freeze defenders and blow by them, which will be a real treat to watch in Chapel Hill. He is adept driving to both sides, and goes left a lot, which takes away defenders’ ability to force him to his weak side. Felton is an adept passer out of the drive as well, regularly finding open bigs or shooters. Outside the paint, Felton’s jump shot isn’t stellar, but has improved over the past several years and looks like a shot that will soon be reliable, if not deadly. He is a very fluid, dynamic athlete who can finish above the rim with ease given some space.

He’s got some things to improve upon, most of which Roy Williams has alluded to in his criticism that Felton doesn’t yet “understand hard work, doesn't understand focus, doesn't understand defense.” Felton has been criticized for occasionally coasting during his high school career, not playing with 100% intensity when he thinks his talent will suffice, and trying to make flashy plays over better, simpler ones. It’s a criticism leveled at most elite players at any level of any sport, usually pointlessly so. It’s got more weight coming from Williams to the media, but it’s probably an issue that will sort itself out sooner rather than later. Additionally, Felton doesn’t play through contact very well, on offense or on defense. This is a limitation that can be worked around and worked on, as evidenced most recently by Justin Jackson, but it’s something to look out for.

Felton will be one of the first guards off the bench for Roy Williams’ team, rotating with point guards and wing players as Williams experiments with lineups that might have 1, 2, or even 3 point guards in them. One thing’s certain, though, and that’s that Felton can - and will - play.

Walk(er)-on

Walker Miller (6’10, 220)

The less heralded of this year’s legacy class, Miller is the younger brother of Wes, a walk-on who rose to Tar Heel fame in 2006 by leading a squad that wasn’t supposed to be as good as it ended up being. Walker Miller, then, knew exactly what the Carolina family was all about, and ended up unable to turn down an opportunity to come to UNC and experience being a part of it for himself.

Miller fits the profile of a depth big man for Roy Williams, similar to Jackson Simmons several years ago. He has good basketball instincts, runs the floor well, and plays smart, exactly what Williams might need at times with his three scholarship big men all still learning their positions to some extent. Miller doesn’t have the experience that Simmons had when he played in place of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Brice Johnson, and James Michael McAdoo, but he has the smarts to get there quickly and could provide valuable depth minutes sooner than most might expect.

In conclusion, every single member of this freshman class has shown a dedication and passion towards being a Tar Heel that shouldn’t go unnoticed. It might not be as highly heralded as next year’s class, but it features a ton of good players, both the kind who can make an immediate impact and those who might take some time to become productive players. Nearly all, however, will be seen more often this year than they would have in most years, so it’s a good time to get familiar with what they bring and why exactly we’re rooting for them.

As always, Go Heels!