Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a lot of talented guards, a skilled but slightly undersized power forward, and three relatively untested and incompletely developed big men walk into the Dean Dome...
Yes, as has been discussed at length, this is what the top of UNC’s roster will look like when the 2017-18 college basketball season starts. But what hasn’t been discussed as much is that this is also what UNC’s roster looked like for the 2012-13 season. The guards were freshman Marcus Paige, P.J. Hairston, Reggie Bullock, Dexter Strickland, and Leslie McDonald. The power forward was James Michael McAdoo. The big men were Desmond Hubert, Joel James, and Brice Johnson.
At the time, people didn’t really think Williams would go for a small-ball lineup. He hadn’t really done it before, and before the season started, the guards did not inspire that much confidence. Paige was a freshman taking over for one of the best playmakers in UNC history, Hairston was coming off a horrendous freshman season, Bullock was good but coming off injury, Strickland was fine but not a standout, and McDonald was never really that good.
We all know what happened, but to recap: Williams rolled with his traditional two-big lineup, rotating his centers pretty equally. They all took their lumps as the season went on. Johnson was a defensive liability, James was still learning the game, and Hubert was an offensive non-presence. Meanwhile, Hairston was coming off the bench and putting together a bid for ACC Sixth Man of the Year, putting up 12.3 points per game in just 19 minutes per game on 39% shooting from three-point range. In Williams’ system, there wasn’t room for him behind Bullock, who was playing even better than he was, and Strickland, who Williams saw as an integral secondary ball-handler and perimeter defender.
Those two roles don’t hold much water with fans, so the outcry for Hairston to replace Strickland was growing louder and louder as the middle of February rolled around and UNC was just 6-5 in conference play. Williams then shocked pretty much everybody by, instead of replacing Strickland, simply inserting Hairston into his 4 spot and letting McAdoo take the majority of minutes at center. This change to a lineup with only one player taller than 6’5 allowed the team to rebound and win six of their next eight and go to the ACC Tournament Championship, before being seeded ludicrously low and losing to Kansas in the Round of 32.
So, how does the current iteration of the Tar Heels compare to that group? In my view, pretty favorably. The most obvious advantage to the 2017 group is with the guards, as the current stable is both deeper and more proven. Take a look at this:
- Freshman Marcus Paige -> Senior Joel Berry (huge upgrade)
- Dexter Strickland -> Theo Pinson (moderate upgrade)
- Reggie Bullock -> Cameron Johnson (slight downgrade)
- P.J. Hairston -> Kenny Williams (slight-moderate downgrade)
- Leslie McDonald -> Jalek Felton (probable upgrade)
- Freshman JP Tokoto -> Sophomore Seventh Woods (slight-to-moderate upgrade)
- nobody else -> Brandon Robinson (upgrade)
Hairston and Bullock were clearly UNC’s best players in 2012-13, but they didn’t have nearly as much support as Joel Berry will have on the perimeter this year. Not only is there more offensive firepower between Berry, Johnson, Williams, and Felton than the earlier group had (remember, Paige wasn’t much of a scorer until his sophomore year), but this group will be able to run from the point, with several able ball-handlers in the 2017 group compared to Paige and sometimes Strickland in the 2012 class.
The next comparison, and in my opinion the most crucial one, is between James Michael McAdoo and Luke Maye at the center position. Given only each player’s recruiting profile, making this comparison would seem ludicrous. And while yes, McAdoo was significantly taller, stronger, and more athletic than Maye, the latter brings aspects to the table that might make him an even better fit for a perimeter-oriented offense. The biggest one is rebounding. Despite his relative lack of size and athleticism for his position, Luke Maye is a very good rebounder. He boxes out, positions himself well, and has strong hands. For evidence, last year, when he got significant minutes, his Total Rebounding Percentage was 14.9%. McAdoo never reached that mark in 3 seasons at UNC, even when he was the only big on the floor his sophomore season (13.6%). Given how much Roy Williams emphasizes rebounding, it becomes absolutely vital when you are the only big man on the floor for him.
The second aspect is Maye’s ability to join a perimeter-oriented offense with his outside shooting skills. This could have the effect of drawing opposing centers out of the paint, giving perimeter players better driving lanes and more offensive rebounding opportunity, where size-wise, it might be a fairer fight. Even though Maye isn’t built like McAdoo, he is built for the same offense that McAdoo anchored from the inside.
As we have seen, the big advantage that the 2017 team enjoys over the 2012 team is offensive versatility. While the 2012 team had just three players who averaged over 10 points per game (Hairston, McAdoo, and Bullock), this team is virtually guaranteed at least that (Berry, Johnson, Pinson) as well as several other players who have shown the ability to score in bunches. Like the 2012 team, the team can use several big men with different skill sets, though the 2017 squad is even more diverse than their predecessors. And with a seasoned point guard, offense can run much more cleanly than the at-times frenetic 2012.
The question, though, is defense. A major reason that the 2012 lineup was so successful was P.J. Hairston’s previously unforeseen ability to check opposing power forwards and compete with them on the boards. At a sturdy 220 pounds, he was not easily moved out of the way, so the Heels did not have to compromise too much on defense when in their small-ball lineup. UNC’s current guard lineup is a bit slighter than that; all of them are below 200 pounds. The only two with the height to check opposing power forwards are Theo Pinson and Cameron Johnson. Of the two, Pinson has flashed the ability to guard opposing big men at times, but other times, he has been overmatched. Unfortunately Johnson does not come to Carolina with a reputation for playing very good defense; his DRtg in 2016-17 was 110.7. Pinson will likely be tasked, therefore, of playing the 4 spot when UNC is in small ball mode. With the nation moving towards stretch fours over traditional big men, though, this might not be as big a concern as it could have been five years ago.
Another, arguably bigger worry is with Maye, who, because he doesn’t have the strength of McAdoo, might occasionally be bullied by opposing centers. McAdoo was undersized, but strong enough to maintain position most of the time against opposing centers. Maye is even smaller, and has been known to get muscled out of position against much bigger players. This is why, though, Maye isn’t Carolina’s only big man. Incoming freshmen Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman both have reputations as good, strong, physical defensive players, which should allow them to ease the load on Maye and mitigate the defensive loss that the team might take from their smallest lineup. And that said, Maye’s best games last season came against arguably his biggest, most athletic competition: 11 points against Kentucky Part I, 15 rebounds against Florida State, 17 points against Kentucky Part II. I think he’s ready to compensate for anything he might give up.
So with this precedent to build off of, what exactly can this year’s team look to emulate? One of the things that sticks out when reviewing that year is the players’ ball movement. The 2012-13 team had more assists than any other team in the country. It doesn’t take a genius to know that’s good. Team basketball will be paramount with this lineup. On the other end, the 2012-13 Heels were also excellent at forcing turnovers to compensate for their size disadvantage on defense. They ranked 16th in the nation and first in the ACC in steals. A similarly pesky approach would be a tremendous asset, especially when the team has a few more defensive question marks than the 2012 teams. Last year’s team was 2nd and 14th in the nation in those categories, respectively, so clearly the personnel is there to repeat those numbers. Hopefully they follow through.
On the other hand, what can they improve on their predecessors? Well, for one thing, this was during that dark time when UNC’s free throw shooting was really, really bad. Besides Maye, most of this year’s returning players are at least decent free throw shooters, so this should hopefully not be an issue. Additionally, that team fouled a lot, coming in 12th in the conference for least fouls committed (their opponents shot free throws better against UNC than against any other conference opponent. The Heels are cursed). It’s inevitable sometimes with a smaller lineup, but it can be mitigated by emphasizing keeping the ball outside the paint and maintaining defensive discipline. Again, last year’s team didn’t have nearly the same proclivity for fouling, so their ability to improve on both fronts is promising.
After seeing what he’s already done with a similar roster, it seems very likely that Roy Williams will make liberal use of a small-ball lineup in the upcoming season. Good news for Heels fans: based on the previous experience, the guys he has are more than equipped for it.