Lucas: Impact Felt Immediately
With Thursday's news about the expected absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald from the season opener on Friday night, a look at what the Tar Heels might look like without them.
The absence of Hairston means Carolina returns just 48.3% of its scoring from last year, and without McDonald, the players responsible for just 18.0% of Carolina's 272 made three-pointers last year will be available.
It also means the Tar Heels will go into the 2013-14 season missing three of their top five scorers from last season--a team that at 76.7 points per game, was the second-lowest scoring club of the Roy Williams era (trailing only the 2009-10 club).
"When you take out your two best three-point shooters statistically, it changes you," Williams said Thursday afternoon. "It does change your team when your best shooters aren't playing."
Hairston's absence also nullifies one of Carolina's most effective scoring plays last season: sending the Greensboro native to the free throw line. His 113 free throw attempts were easily the second-most on the team, and his 77.9% success rate was behind only Marcus Paige among the regulars. In an upcoming season where easy points are going to be cherished, sending Hairston to the charity stripe would've been the easiest of easy. That's no longer an option.
By the way, not that you wanted to feel any worse, but Hairston was also Carolina's second-leading returning rebounder. The Paige/Nate Britt backcourt couldbe exciting offensively, but it's unlikely they're going to get to the glass very often, as Hairston frequently did last season.
During whatever part of the season that includes neither Hairston nor McDonald, the Tar Heels will be frighteningly thin in the backcourt. The guard rotation consists of Marcus Paige, Nate Britt and Luke Davis. Paige, a sophomore, is the "seasoned" member of that group, Britt is a true freshman and Davis has played a total of 82 minutes for the Tar Heels, with only 15 of those minutes against ACC opponents. Davis played 25 minutes in the exhibition game against UNC Pembroke and a similar workload isn't out of the question at the start of the season.
What it means
It means you're going to see a starting five very similar to the exhibition game against UNC Pembroke: Paige and Britt at the guards, James Michael McAdoo somewhere in the frontcourt, J.P. Tokoto, who was mentioned by Williams as a surefire starter, and some combination of Joel James, Kennedy Meeks and Desmond Hubert.
It's a good thing Paige has spent some time learning shooting guard, because he may have to play that position by necessity. He's the best outside shooter by far on the available roster. In fact, he's the only proven outside shooter on the available roster. It would be very surprising if the Tar Heels don't face a heavy dose of zone defense until they prove they can shoot Oakland out of it.
On the rebounding topic, it's an opportunity for Tokoto to fulfill some of the rebounding promise Williams has been predicting for him ever since he enrolled at Carolina. That, as much as his scoring, might determine how firm his place in the starting lineup could be. It's worth noting that Tokoto spent the summer revamping his outside shot with Hubert Davis, and the revisions have drawn praise from Williams. He should get plenty of opportunities to display it this season, while at the same time balancing it with these words of warning from his head coach: "I don't want him thinking that he's going to shoot five or six threes every game and never go get offensive rebounds."
Another player who suddenly has a dramatically enhanced role: Luke Davis. Especially until McDonald returns, he's the lone true backup for Paige and Britt at the guard positions. It's simply not realistic to expect a freshman and sophomore to play 40 minutes--or even 35 minutes--per game apiece. Davis is going to get quality minutes in the backcourt.
The short term quest will be for the Tar Heels to find someone to hit outside shots. Williams ended 2013 expecting to have a trio of solid perimeter shooters coming back--Reggie Bullock, Hairston and McDonald. He'll coach the season opener without any of them.
It's likely that Carolina can bang some opponents around with a big man rotation of McAdoo, Meeks, James, Hubert, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Jackson Simmons, but they desperately need a complementary outside shooter to Paige to emerge in order to have any semblance of offensive balance. As Williams said this fall, "Our best teams have always been when we've had a good balance that we can score inside and score from the three-point line. Score on the break and score in set offense. So that's our challenge, to be able to do all that."
The loss of Hairston means Carolina will play the opener against an Oakland team Williams described as "not your typical directional school opening night kind of team" without its probable best--or at least most explosive--returning player. But keep in mind that this year's freshman class appears better equipped to contribute instantly than the last couple of classes.
Britt, described by his head coach as "truly a point guard," is penciled in as an immediate starter. Williams said Thursday that Paige will spend most of his time at shooting guard, allowing Britt to run the point. Hicks brings a welcome rebounding prowess (he had 30 rebounds in the 2013 state title game) and quietly earned raves from former players--including Tyler Hansbrough, who was very impressed--this summer. Meeks' weight has been a story, but he's lost over 30 pounds and Williams says he's "the best outlet-passing big man that I've ever had." The head coach also noted Meeks "can score in the low post better than anybody we have right now."
Last year's freshmen collectively averaged 47.2 minutes per game. It's not hard to imagine a scenario where this year's group would surpass that, maybe even edging towards the 2010-11 average of 64.5 minutes per game by that season's rookies. This year's freshmen don't arrive with the amount of press clippings possessed by that class--Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock--but the need for this year's group is at least temporarily as great or greater than that triumvirate.
Adam Lucas is a GoHeels columnist and the editor of CAROLINA.