While he wasn’t the star and he certainly wasn’t the most frustrating player, one could make the argument that Jeremiah Francis was the perfect microcosm of the Tar Heels’ 2019-20 season. Sometimes he showed that he had the ability to be a solid, impactful player, but also struggled considerably at times, especially shooting the ball. When it was all over, much like the team as a whole, we were all left wondering if the injuries he sustained simply never gave him a chance to get rolling.
Francis was the first member of the 2019 recruiting class, but his high school career was disrupted by a pair of knee injuries. By his senior high school year there was doubt from some of the online armchair scouting experts whether UNC would remain committed to Francis, but Roy Williams adamantly (and justly) stated during the season that sticking with Jeremiah was “a very easy choice” as Francis had committed to them and they owed him the same. Unfortunately for all involved, Francis’ knee issues continued to dog him when he arrived in Chapel Hill.
Francis wouldn’t see the floor until the December 8th game at Virginia. By that time, UNC was utterly starved of backcourt reserves (Anthony Harris had been out as well) and Cole Anthony was logging ungodly minutes for any player, let alone a freshman. Francis played just six minutes in the loss to the Wahoos, but over the next eight games he saw his playing time grow, largely due to Anthony’s own injury rehab. After the Virginia Tech game in late January, he sustained another injury that put him on a minutes restriction the remainder of the season.
Francis finished the full season with averages of 3.3 ppg, 1.6 apg, and 1.2 turnovers per game, while shooting 22.7% from the field and 69% from the foul line. He did so averaging 13.6 minutes per game. However, the eight-game stretch from Wofford through Virginia Tech is the better measuring stick to judge his season, as it was his healthiest period, played out over an unbroken string. These are his numbers in that time:
22.7 mpg, 5.6 ppg, 2.9 apg, 2.0 tpg, 24% fg, 23% 3-pt, 67% ft
For comparison, here are the numbers of recent Tar Heel freshmen as backup point guards:
Nate Britt 2013-14: 20.9 mpg (started 16 games), 5.1 ppg, 2.4 apg, 1.7 tpg, 37% fg, 79% ft
Joel Berry 2014-15: 13.2 mpg, 4.2 ppg, 1.5 apg, 0.7 tpg, 40% fg, 75% ft
What immediately jumps out is the shooting. Whether playing bigger minutes or smaller ones, Francis was brutal shooting the basketball. This isn’t entirely his fault: the majority of his time on the floor came when UNC was at rock-bottom in terms of offensive execution. Plays constantly broke down and the ball handler was forced to improvise and create offense. Possessing none of Cole Anthony’s preposterous shot-making ability, Francis couldn’t compensate for the team-wide lack of execution.
At his best, Francis was aggressive attacking the rim and getting to the line. His best stretch of the season came in his two games against Yale and UCLA. In those two combined games, he had 22 points and went 13-16 from the foul line, though he did not shoot it well from the field. He also showed greater confidence distributing the ball.
But things fell apart very quickly once he got a taste of conference play. In the ensuing games against Georgia Tech, Pitt (twice), and Virginia Tech he didn’t get to the line and regressed as a facilitator, committing more turnovers than assists. This was largely because teams began playing off him, daring him to shoot the ball. By the end, he looked unwilling to even attempt shots from distance and was totally out of sorts running the offense. The 2-OT defeat in Blacksburg was the last time he played meaningful minutes before re-aggravating his knee. It would be easy to say that his progress was undermined by injury, but the truth is that there were serious warning signs before he got re-injured.
Francis’ role going forward will be an interesting one, since UNC will (or at least should) have a lot of depth in the backcourt next season. With Caleb Love and R.J Davis coming in and Anthony Harris returning for his sophomore season, there will be plenty of competition for playing time. Love will surely be the starting point guard, but who his true backup will be will be is far from certain. Francis is the best fit for that position, as Davis and Harris are better suited as shooting guards. If Francis can find his comfort zone and rediscover his aggressive streak, he could be a valuable player on a much improved UNC team in 2021.