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UNC basketball: Grades and superlatives heading into exams

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The 11-day exam “break” isn’t really a break, but it provides a good opportunity to assess the Heels in this early stage of the season.

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

It’s a time I remember all too well; the time of year between Thanksgiving and Christmas where you wonder if you ever really learned anything as you download every lecture PowerPoint in a futile attempt to make information stick to your brain for more than one millisecond. The Tar Heels won’t see the court again until they travel to play the #24 Tennessee Volunteers on December 17th, who have a win over #18 Purdue and a loss to #5 Villanova.

That in and of itself will be yet another examination for this young squad, but the ten games they’ve played thus far can give us an idea of what the team is capable of. The Heels are 9-1, with the ugly loss against Michigan State being the nadir of the season. (It should be mentioned that the MSU game is also the only game the Heels have played against ranked opposition.

It’s a good time to look at the roster, gauge performances, and even hand out some superlatives. That said, I’m only including players who have played at least 50 minutes in order to weed out any small sample sizes. Apologies to Walker Miller, Shea Rush, and Aaron Rohlman. Without further ado, and in descending order of minutes played:

Most Likely To Break Out: Luke Maye

It’s safe to say no one could really have predicted this, right? Maye peaked with his shot against Kentucky in the Final Four last year, but now it’s like he installed a ladder at the summit of that peak in order to climb even higher. Maye leads the Heels in several statistical categories: points, minutes, rebounds, blocks, and even field goal percentage among players with at least fifty attempts. He’s averaging a double-double through ten games (19.9/10.5), and he’s scored in double digits in every game except MSU.

At this stage of the season, and with the way Maye is playing, identifying any weaknesses in his game is nitpicking. But I wouldn’t be a good fake professor (although my day job is actually a teacher) if I didn’t offer constructive criticism. Maye’s worst facet of his game at the moment is his free throw shooting. This isn’t necessarily news—in fact, he’s shooting free throws at almost the exact same clip this season (57.8) as last season (57.9). But as the offensive star of a team whose goal is to still be playing in April, the performance from the line has to improve. For that reason, he gets an A-, and I’d imagine he already knows that should be his goal the rest of the season.

Most Likely To Build A House: Theo Pinson

It’s a bit unfair to Theo to focus on a weakness of his game when there’s so much else he’s done well, but one of the stories of the early season were his struggles from the perimeter. And unlike Maye’s free-throw shooting, this is a relatively new thing, at least at this level. He’s a career 24.5% shooter from deep, which isn’t great but isn’t scream-every-time-he-pulls-up-from-deep bad either. However, this year, he’s 2-for-21 from beyond the three-point line, which is 9.5%.

If he hasn’t fixed his shooting stroke, he’s at least stopped pulling up. Nineteen of his attempts came in the first six games of the season (as did both of his makes), but in the last four games he’s only attempted two shots from deep. On a more positive note, he leads the team in assists with 4.4 per game and he’s shooting 62.7% from inside the three-point line. It’s not enough to overshadow those early struggles from deep entirely, but it is enough to give him a B.

Most Likely To Need The Fire Department: Kenny Williams

As opposed to Theo’s current 9.5 clip from outside the arc, Kenny is an absolutely astounding 55%. That ranks 28th in the nation among qualified players, and it’s absolutely a needed strength on a team that, as a whole, doesn’t have a lot of proven shooters from deep. While UNC as a team is shooting about 40% from deep, which ranks 42nd in the NCAA, they’ve only attempted enough threes to rank 169th.

Williams is also a strong shooter from the free throw line, ranking second on the team to Joel Berry II among players who have at least ten attempts at 82.4%. He ranks first on the team in steals with 14 as well. He’s even ranked second on the team in defensive win shares. It’s honestly hard to find a part of his game that’s outright weak. As a jack-of-all-trades, it’s hard to ask for more from Kenny. He’s done everything asked of him, even if the only areas he truly excels in are perimeter shooting and free-throw shooting. For that, he gets a A-, because I don’t want him to rest on his laurels.

Most Likely To Make Us Forget: Joel Berry II

Man, doesn’t it feel like a thousand years ago that we were all panicking about Joel Berry’s broken hand? He only ended up missing one game, and after a rough 1-11 in his first game back against Bucknell he’s largely returned to form. There have been bumps since then—a 3-12 against Arkansas and a 2-11 against Michigan State come to mind. However, he’s UNC’s best shooter from the line at 88.1%.

It’s easy to identify Berry’s biggest weakness. He’s shooting 36% overall and 36% from deep. Hopefully as the season goes on he’ll find his rhythm, but as of right now that would be a career low overall FG% and his lowest deep shooting percentage since his freshman year. When you miss the first day of class, you have to spend the rest of the semester playing catch-up. For that, he gets a C+, and make sure you turn in that makeup work!

Most Likely To Get Hacked: Garrison Brooks

And here we come to the last member of the regular starting lineup. However, it’s a steep drop from Kenny Williams’s 28 minutes per game to Brooks’s 17.7 minutes per game. Be it by necessity or by design, Roy is leaning on his small-ball lineups, and as a result Brooks isn’t seeing the floor nearly as much as his fellow starters. He’s getting most of the minutes at the 5, and he’s fulfilling the big-men-have-it-hard-from-the-line stereotype: he’s hitting only half of his attempts (10 for 20).

Of UNC’s starters, Brooks’s role is currently the most tenuous. Berry and Williams are the backcourt, Pinson and Maye are at the 3 and 4, and Brooks is the starting center. He’s also the only freshman to be a starter right now. Whether or not he holds on to that starting job will be one of the key storylines of the rest of the season. But he’s got plenty of room to grow. He’s sitting at a C right now.

Most Likely To Surpass Expectations: Jalek Felton

He’s coming off a POTG-worthy performance against WCU. His role is bigger than ever with Seventh Woods out indefinitely. And he’s bounced back remarkably well from an ugly three game stretch (MSU, Michigan, Davidson) where he scored zero points. He seems to have shaken that early adversity off pretty well, huh? He drilled all four of his threes against WCU, and if he can emerge as a perimeter threat off of the bench, that changes everything for UNC. But small sample sizes can only say so much. He gets a bump due to finishing the semester strong, at a B.

Most Likely To Crash The Boards: Sterling Manley

Manley ranks eighth on the team in minutes per game but SECOND in rebounds per game with 5.4. His per 40 minute numbers are remarkable: 21.8 points and 17.3 rebounds. He has the best field goal percentage on the team among qualifying players at 63.2% and he grabs the highest percentage of available rebounds at 22.8%. My bold prediction at the beginning of the year was that Manley would be starting before the end of the season, and he’s backing me up.

He does have plenty of room for improvement at the same time. He shoots better from the field than he does from the line (62.5). He turns the ball over 5.1 times per 40 minutes, which is first (or last, depending on how you look at it) on the team. Those knock him down from A territory to a solid B+.

Most Likely To Shoot The Lights Out: Andrew Platek

Platek wasn’t expected to see a lot of time at a crowded wing position, but with Cameron Johnson missing time, Platek has filled that role, playing 11.4 minutes a game in a season in which many thought he might redshirt. In those 11.4 minutes per game, however, his true shooting percentage (71.4) and effective field goal percentage (70.4) rank first among qualifying UNC players. True shooting percentage adjusts for free throws and three-pointers, while effective field goal percentage adjusts for the different value between two-pointers and three-pointers.

In fact, most advanced metrics heavily favor Platek. One of the most interesting storylines when Cameron Johnson finally returns will be whether or not Platek holds onto his minutes. But regardless of what happens then, it’s clear that Platek will be a solid contributor for the Heels for a very long time. The small sample size hurts him, but his performance in that small sample size is hard to overlook. He earns a B for his efforts.

Most Likely To Lead A Bench Mob: Brandon Robinson

Much was said about Robinson’s ability to make hustle plays off the bench earlier this week. I won’t repeat those words, but I will state that in his sophomore year he’s improved in virtually every category. He’s even a perfect 5-for-5 from the line this year! With the strength of UNC’s starters he likely won’t be closing out games any time soon, but he is currently UNC’s leading sixth man at 13.9 minutes played per game. His contributions are hard to measure and don’t always show up on the stat sheet, but he did the extra credit. B-Rob will always do the work he’s asked to do in a group project. For that and more, he earns a B-, because his three 0s (MSU, Michigan, and Tulane) still pull that overall grade down despite his extra credit.

Most Likely To Walk Right Over You: Seventh Woods

...But unfortunately, Seventh’s boot wasn’t made for playing basketball in. It’s unclear whether the plantar fasciitis that has caused him to miss the last three games was hampering him any in the early parts of the season, but the team recently announced that Woods is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in the same foot. He had some good moments in relief of Berry, but I’m going to have to assign him an INC for now. Get well soon, Seventh.

Most Likely To Make A Lot Out Of A Little: Brandon Huffman

In the battle of the Brandons, Huffman actually has a higher scoring average than Robinson (by a tenth of a point) despite playing half as many minutes per game. In fact, Huffman had a four-game stretch (Arkansas, MSU, Michigan, Davidson) where he played ten minutes and scored two points, which he chalked up to matchup issues. And then in the last two games, he’s played 25 minutes, pulling in 13 points and 14 rebounds. His player efficiency rating of 25.0 is second on the team, but it should be noted that only 17 of his 66 minutes have come against P5 opposition.

His opportunities to showcase his skills have been few and far between, and the matchup issues mentioned earlier will hamstring him early on in his career. That he is in the same class as two other bigs (Manley and Brooks) also works against him. Will he continue to make the most of his minutes once we get to conference play? Only time will tell. His C+ recognizes what he’s done while at the same time noting who it’s been against and also the fact that he’s been on the court only about 15% of the time for the Heels.