Bigger and Better
At the first Carolina basketball practice of each new season, head coach Roy Williams positions his post players under the basket on the left block. “He’ll say, ‘OK. If your life depended on it, what shot would you shoot right here?’” recently-retired Williams assistant Joe Holladay said. Players then use the shot most comfortable to them to ensure a made basket. “We’re going to start right there and see what they do, and that’s going to become their favorite move.”
Williams then repeats the process on the opposite side of the lane. But that’s just building the foundation of a big man’s arsenal. If a player chooses a jump hook as his favorite move, he’s got to develop a counter. Find another way to operate should a defender shut down your preferred method of scoring. The player begins with what’s most natural to him and then builds upon that. “It’s not like we’re teaching, ‘OK, we’re going to drop step, pump three times and go under,’” Holladay said. Every practice thereafter will begin with the post players practicing their favorite moves.
Carolina big men must have a varied repertoire to draw from in order to execute the Tar Heel offense. The coaches want to see a power move - one dribble and then taking the ball to the rim, a face up game - taking a step or two toward the wing for a mid-range jumper, and certainly, given the Tar Heel secondary break, the ability to hit a free-throw line jump shot, “or else,” Holladay said, “their man will just run and cover the other low post man.” If a Tar Heel post player can pull up and hit a three-pointer, that’s a bonus.
It all starts with a favorite move. “We start smiling on the bench when they start that move,” Holladay said. “Seventy percent of the time, they’re going to make that shot, if we can get them the ball in the right position.”
At Carolina, and indeed throughout college basketball, big men rarely arrive as finished products. Whereas in high school they were simply the biggest and strongest players on the floor, they’re now walking onto a team full of grown men. Prep guards can stand out because of their instincts and abilities with the ball. Power forwards and center stand out because, well, they stand out. “Everybody’s looking for some kind of presence in the middle, and you can’t teach it,” Holladay said. Coaches will often take a chance on a player with size and hope he develops. Roy Williams would like to set the bar higher. “We’re hoping we can find somebody who already has some skills as a big guy,” Holladay said. “Of course, for Coach Williams, you’ve got to find people who can run, also.”
Out of necessity, Carolina opted to go with a much-discussed ‘small lineup’ midway through the 2012-13 season. That consisted of basically four guards and James Michael McAdoo. Often 6’6 P.J. Hairston was ostensibly the ‘4,’ or power forward in the lineup. With the addition of freshmen Kennedy Meeks (6’9, 290 pounds) and Isaiah Hicks (6’8, 220) plus another year’s experience for juniors McAdoo, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert and sophomores Brice Johnson and Joel James, Carolina ought to have post depth to avoid that situation this year.
“At that time, the small lineup was what worked for us,” James said this summer. “It helped us win a lot of games, but eventually . . . if you’ve seen this year’s schedule, we play some big teams, some big people, and I don’t think that small lineup can guard some people that size, so something’s got to give. Either I’ve got to get better, or the inside will get smacked around.”
McAdoo said last year’s rotation lit a fire under James and Johnson in particular, as Williams opted to go small rather than play inexperienced big men. “They’ve been in the gym working hard,” he said. “Joel’s game is night and day, in my eyes, to what it was at this time last year.”
The players seem to understand that combining their size with finely-honed skills can only help their game become more well-rounded. “I have the physical tools to be an NBA superstar one day,” James said. “But along with the physical skills, you need to have the mental part of the game as well.”
What James and Johnson went through as freshmen is not unique to them, certainly. Big players that relied on their size for high school success no longer have that advantage at the college level. There is an adjustment period during which they begin the develop the skills and moves that will help them score, rebound and defend amongst the grown men on the basketball court. Former Tar Heel All-American Eric Montross used a reptilian metaphor to describe the big man’s transition. “The baby snake has fangs and venom and is often more careless, because the baby snake injects all the venom at once. The adult snake injects just enough to disable its prey. That’s kind of like the young post player who comes in and can look kind of unwieldy inside the paint. He’s very unorthodox in his moves and he’s trying to use all his strength when he only has to understand angles and force and balance. That’s why the more mature post players don’t waste all that energy, they just use it where necessary.”
Montross himself got a rude welcome to college basketball on the court outside Granville Towers. He got the ball on the block during a pickup game and went to his favorite move. “The word ‘Spalding’ was on the ball, and it was also on my forehead after Pete Chilcutt put it right back in my face,” Montross remembered. “Pete was not seven feet tall, but he was a senior, and he knew how to read players. He knew how to read what your move was going to be, unless you were crafty. I was anything but crafty.”
Current Tar Heels have the benefit of working on occasion with returning alumni such as Montross, Marvin Williams and Jawad Williams. “It’s great, because they know Coach’s system very well,” Johnson said. “They’ll tell you what’s wrong and what’s right. If you mess up on a ball screen, they’ll stop the game and show you what you should do.” It also doesn’t hurt that these players scrimmage against each other all the time. “We’re going to play against people with Joel’s size and people with Mac’s quickness all the time, so it’s helped me learn what I need to do,” Johnson said.
Though the small lineup worked at times last season, Montross expects a different team to take the floor this year. “The balance of a team revolves around the ability to draw defense and keep them on their toes, and not allow them to know what the offensive player is going to do. The more offensive threats you have, the better you are.”
Carolina’s roster boasts a wealth of post players. How the team fares in 2013-14 will largely depend on their development from one year to the next. And their favorite moves.