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UNC basketball: The curious case of Nate Britt

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The senior guard may have had a rough start to the season, but quietly has put together a very impressive conference resume.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Britt has gotten a bad rap from Tar Heel fans, some of it deserved and some of it not so much.

Throughout his career at UNC, he has played second fiddle to more prominent point guards, first Marcus Paige and now Joel Berry. He has always shown an incredible attitude toward being a Tar Heel and doing whatever his team needs him to do, regardless of individual glory.

His sophomore and junior years, he was undoubtedly at his best, as he became a reliable 3-point shooter, free throw shooter, and on-ball defender in the role of backup to Berry and Paige. This role allowed him to thrive as more of a pure point guard instead of playing off-ball like one point guard often has in Roy Williams’ recent two-PG system. Britt is much less comfortable playing off-ball than either Berry or Paige, so this played to his strengths.

On the road to the National Championship game last year, Britt averaged 5.4 points, 1.8 assists, 0.6 steals, and 0.9 turnovers per game in 15 minutes per game. He did nothing spectacularly, but he was a net positive to the team, collecting a box plus-minus of 4.5 points per 100 possessions per sports-reference.com/cbb.

After Paige’s departure from the program, it was widely expected that Britt would step up as a senior. An increase in minutes would mean a much more integral role to the team in all aspects: scoring, leadership, defense, and ballhandling.

His season started off, by and large, as a disappointment. His out-of-conference three-point percentage was only 29%, he shot just over 60% from the free throw line, and, thrust into playing more of an off-guard role much of the time, struggled to defend larger shooting guards off the ball.

In addition to shooting the ball worse, he also was shooting it more frequently. His per-40 minute field goal attempts were similar to those of his junior year, but playing nearly five extra minutes a game, the misses began to add up.

Combined with Seventh Woods’ adjustment period to the NCAA, the UNC offense struggled heavily without Joel Berry on the floor. As a distributor, Britt was good, but not great: 39 assists versus 18 turnovers is slightly better than a 2:1 ratio. His biggest asset to the team was in his ability to get into passing lanes, and he was rewarded with 19 steals before conference play started.

The value of having seniors on a team, though, has been proven time and again by Roy Williams’ Tar Heels: they’ve reinforced their mental toughness by facing adversity over and over again. This year, it’s Britt who has exemplified it, because he has been an excellent backup point guard ever since conference play began.

In nearly every aspect of his game except for his free throw shooting, Britt has actually been very good. Nowhere has this been more evident than in his three-point shooting. UNC fans—myself included—might still cringe when he goes up to shoot, but on 16 attempts in conference play, Britt has knocked down 8 three-pointers. It’s a small sample size, but 50% from beyond the arc? I’ll take that every day of the week.

His two-point field goal percentage is a somewhat mediocre 44% in conference, but this is largely due to his settling for midrange jump shots, which nobody on this team should be taking except for Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Isaiah Hicks. It’s a wasted shot for nearly everybody in college basketball. His driving ability remains good, and his ability to drive with speed and finish at odd angles has been just as prominently on display this year as it has his whole career at UNC.

He’s also provided leadership, with the best example being shown in this Adam Lucas column after the Clemson game:

As [Kenny Williams] stood on the free throw line with over 8,700 Tiger fans screaming at him, senior Nate Britt approached him.

“Hey,” Britt said to Williams, “show them you’ve got ice water in your veins.”

Britt is the guy that greets every starter as each of their names is announced before each game, with a custom handshake/greeting for each player. He gets the crowd involved pregame during the “Jump Around” chorus, with or without his dancing buddy Theo Pinson. He has become one of the faces and driving personalities of this Tar Heels team.

And finally, his ability as a ballhandler and distributor has gone from good to great. In ACC play, Britt has handed out 30 assists (2.5 assists per game, a career-high in-conference average), against only 11 turnovers, giving him nearly a 3:1 A/TO ratio. He’s also got 13 steals, so he’s created more turnovers on defense than he’s had on offense. That’s always good to see.

All of this comes together for Britt to have an Offensive Rating of 118.8 since conference play started, well above his career average. And for the whole season, including the lackluster non-conference portion, he has an average Box Plus/Minus of 5.6, over a full point per 100 possessions better than his sophomore and junior seasons.

His game has some drawbacks, sure, like the mediocre free-throw shooting and size disadvantage on defense, but, as much as he might make us wince sometimes, Nate Britt has undeniably been one of the Heels’ bigger assets in ACC play.

PS: If you haven’t already, read this Daily Tar Heel longform about Britt’s mentality towards basketball. It’s an absolutely incredible read.

PPS: All stats from the excellent sports-reference.com/cbb