Back in the middle of March — in what feels like a lifetime ago — UNC basketball played in the final ACC game of the 2019-20 season. The lights didn’t go dark immediately following that game, but within 24 hours the season was called off. Shortly thereafter, much of the country would follow in closing down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
This week, though, the Tar Heels are back on the floor as they open up practice for the 2020-21 campaign. The 2019-20 season is one to forget for UNC; the start of a new, fresh season offers up plenty of intriguing possibilities. With North Carolina’s first game six weeks from now, let’s take a look a four critical aspects of this season’s roster for UNC basketball.
Where will the perimeter shooting come from?
North Carolina’s offensive difficulties from a season ago were multifaceted; however, plenty of those struggles can be attributed to the team’s lack of secondary shooting.
During the 2018-19 season, 35.8 percent of North Carolina’s field goal attempts were 3-pointers; this is the highest mark ever under Roy Williams. Led by Cam Johnson — the No. 1 spot-up shooter in the country — the Tar Heels connected on 36.2 percent of their 3-point attempts.
Things went way south a year later, though: UNC’s 3-point attempt rate dropped to 28.9 percent, a bottom 20 number nationally. Beyond that, the Heels made a paltry 30.4 percent of their 3s.
Those numbers carry weight; it’s more than just missed shots, which turn into offensive rebounds (good) or empty possessions (bad). The lack of perimeter gravity on offense forced UNC’s primary offensive weapons — Cole Anthony and Garrison Brooks — to see a packed paint. Help defenders could leave their assignments to converge on Brooks or Anthony.
North Carolina just never quite clicked offensively — both in the half court and secondary break.
Complicating matters for the 2020-21 season: UNC will be without its top three spot-up weapons from last year. According to Synergy: Brandon Robinson, Christian Keeling and Anthony all posted effective shooting rates above 52 percent on spot-up attempts.
Even with a new roster, UNC could face some of the same spacing concerns while opponents load up around the basket.
Cole Anthony shakes CJ Bryce with the R-L cross & gets low to go downhill, but he barges into a sea of red. Another aimless drive (barely gets rid of the pass) & another instance of horrific spacing for #UNC. pic.twitter.com/qgxsLQgXE5
— Trevor William Marks (@twmarks_) February 28, 2020
The return of redshirt freshman guard Anthony Harris, who tore his ACL in late December, could help. However, barring demonstrable shooting improvements from Leaky Black and Andrew Platek (combined 29-of-129 3PA last season), UNC will need its rookie wings to shoot.
Caleb Love will feature prominently here, but he’ll have plenty of primary creation responsibilities, too. 6-foot-8 freshman forward Puff Johnson, Cam’s young brother, is the best option here as far as spot-up options go. RJ Davis (an excellent prospect) and Kerwin Walton may not be quite ready to help as catch-and-shoot floor-spacers.
Next off the PG Assembly Line: Caleb Love
For the third straight season, North Carolina will roll with a 5-star freshman as its lead guard.Two seasons ago, this went wonderfully with Coby White. The Tar Heels, No. 8 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency that year, finished fifth in terms of average time of possession on offense (14.6 seconds) and 14th in assist rate (60.6 percent).
Given health issues and overall roster/system fit, things weren’t as smooth with Anthony at the helm. It tends to get lost in the shuffle, but Anthony’s burst and ability to separate in the paint — low shin angle, attacking top foot — never quite looked right at UNC, especially after an arthroscopic procedure in December.
Regardless, the playmaking mantle is now passed down to Caleb Love. This is his operation to run in Chapel Hill. (North Carolina even lost a bit of a safety net when Jeremiah Francis transferred out of the program in April.)
An absurd shot-making game from Caleb Love last week vs Chaminade. Really versatile shooter with capabilities of off-ball/off-movement, dribble step-backs, forward momentum shots, etc. Creates separation with crossovers & step-backs on jumpers, combined with a quick release. pic.twitter.com/EIwcBmBJNo
— Ross Homan (@Ross_homan1) February 5, 2020
During his senior season of prep basketball, Love averaged 27 points, 2.9 assists and 2.5 steals per game. Love put up serious shooting stats, too: 50.9 2P%, 34.8 3P% and 80.7 FT%. (The free throw percentage is a positive indicator for Love’s projection as a shooter.)
There’s a lot to like with Love: a 6-foot-3 guard with a 6-foot-9 wingspan. He presents a diverse shot profile, which includes an important off-dribble/creation element. However, there are concerns with Love’s burst and his ability to get to the rim.
Not sure where people are generally on Caleb Love's burst, but I've been quite underwhelmed especially in a HS setting. Particularly concerning that even when he gets a bite on his dribble moves, his explosion out of them isn't enough to prevent recoveries pic.twitter.com/slqNGDcWNw
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) October 9, 2020
If Love has trouble getting to the basket, those issues may be further exacerbated by an offense that lacks perimeter shooting and continues to play two traditional bigs/non-shooters. Love could leverage his pull-up shooting game to manipulate coverages and attack downhill; however, multiple bodies in the paint, plus sagging help defenders on the wing, can complicate that calculus.
The 2018-19 team was really good; the Heels benefitted greatly from Johnson’s movement shooting prowess, but UNC was still reliant on White to create offense off the dribble. That’s on Love, now.
UNC will run, defend and pound teams on the glass; overall half-court efficiency is more of a mystery, though. For those concerns, Love is the ceiling-raiser for the Heels on offense. North Carolina needs him to be special.
Can Leaky Black find an offensive role for UNC basketball?
For years now, I’ve been a proud member of “Leaky Black Is An Intriguing Prospect Island.” The 2019-20 season…wasn’t exactly a boon time for the island, though. Shot selection and decision-making issues plagued Black his sophomore year.
That said, Black’s combination of size, defensive skills and offensive flashes are enough to have me hooked, still.
Black lurks as a possible secondary creator (3.7 assists per 40 minutes) and off-ball mover in North Carolina’s half-court motion offense — someone that can bridge actions and help changes sides of the floor through a combination of handoffs, off-ball cuts and flare screens.
Theo Pinson lacked a reliable jump shot in college, but he was still an important facilitator and playmaking hub for North Carolina. (Pinson has turned into a strong 3-point shooter in the G-League.) UNC could toss it to Pinson at the elbow and run its split action game. If Pinson had a mismatch, then he could just work that smaller defender in the paint.
There have even been flashes from Black as a grab-and-go player in transition. Roy Williams likes to play fast; there’s a case to be made — with UNC’s talent advantage, depth and potential spacing concerns — that the Heels should run as much as possible next season.
Up to this point, though, half-court offense has been a slog for Black. A lower-usage player (15.1 percent career), Black slumped shooting the ball from every level last season. Black connected on just 25.4 percent of his 3-point attempts and shot under 56 percent at the rim.
Even when set up for wide open spot-up looks, Black is prone to dribbling in for contested pull-up 2-point jumpers. Not optimal.
Black’s shot mechanics don’t look inherently broke. It does feel like there’s a bit of a push motion to it, like Black is shooting a slightly heavier ball.
While he’s still a little skinny (195 pounds), Black stands 6-foot-8 — with good hands and feet. He’s a very productive defender, and there’s room for growth, too. Black (+1.6 career D-PIPM) was one of six ACC players last season with 3 percent block rate, 2 percent steal rate and an assist rate of 10 percent.
Black can check a variety of position types. His attention to detail off the ball can fluctuate, but Black has shown the ability to work as a lock-and-trail chase defender — even if the closeouts are a little messy against a dynamic movement shooter like Jalen Cone.
It would be nice if Black could receive some playing time as North Carolina’s de facto power forward in some lineups. Williams could work some of these minutes into the equation this season, though it’s hard to envision those being anything more than nominal.
With Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler in town — along with Brooks and the return of Armando Bacot — North Carolina’s frontcourt rotation is quite crowded. The Tar Heels have 80 minutes per game to distribute to their fours and fives; that’s a finite amount, and it will likely need to be split between the quartet of bruising bigs.
Black will spent the vast majority of his minutes on the wing, which means he needs to be an effective cutter and half-court connector.
Can Walker Kessler add some much-needed stretch?
North Carolina has achieved great deals of success under Roy Williams — plenty of which has come with two traditional/non-shooting bigs on the floor together. That mix can still work on the college level.
The 2017 title team featured Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley in the frontcourt. That trio combined for zero 3-point attempts that season, while powering an offense that rebounded over 41 percent of its missed field goal attempts.
Of course, that group also featured Luke Maye. According to Synergy, UNC scored 10.4 points per game (54.4 FG%) — the most in the country — on put-back attempts in 2016-17.
Maye played just under 500 minutes that season (14.1 per game), but he offered a small component of stretch to UNC’s frontcourt: 16-of-40 3-points attempts (40 3P%). As his playing time increased over the next two seasons, so, too, did Maye’s 3-point volume.
During his junior and senior seasons, Maye averaged 3.3 3-point attempts per game (35.7 3P%) as UNC remained a top-10 offense nationally. Those numbers aren’t earth-shattering, but that’s a fairly reliable source of shooting (with some movement) from an unlikely position.
Last season included plenty of Brooks-Bacot lineups. According to Hoop Explorer, over 55 percent Brooks’ possessions came with Bacot on the floor as well. In theory, Justin Pierce was supposed to provide this spacing component, but the William & Mary transfer never found his footing (22.5 3P%).
Brooks has blossomed into a great college player and a program stalwart; however, he has just seven career 3-point attempts to his name. While he’s flashed some face-up midrange abilities, he’s a career 63 percent free throw shooter. It’s bold to assume he’ll add a 3-point jumper. (Back in June, Williams floated the possibility of playing Brooks at the three. I would strong recommend against doing this!)
Bacot is certainly skilled and will be better this year than his freshman campaign, when he became just the 14th ACC rookie since the 2007-08 season to post a 10 percent offensive rebound rate and a block rate of five percent. (Some of the other names on this list include Zion Williamson, Wendell Carter Jr., Derrick Favors, JJ Hickson, James Johnson, Ed Davis and Manny Bates.)
Bacot has finishing issues around the rim — with shaky touch — and he attempted zero 3-pointers during his freshman season.
Sharpe is an excellent two-way prospect with very serious pro potential; he can clean the glass, finish at the rim and guard in space on the other end. While he lacks elite vertical pop, Sharpe has excellent hands and can run the floor, which should fit nicely in UNC’s secondary attack.
Heck of a rotation by Day'Ron Sharpe for the steal pic.twitter.com/4oMuiN537X
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) October 3, 2020
There’s real skill here; Sharpe has shown flashes of shot-making, too. But it seems unlikely that he’ll be ready to contribute as a legit floor-spacer next season.
This brings us to Kessler, who has the ability to step out and hit a 3-pointer. Kessler doesn’t have to be Davis Bertans; whatever element of stretch the 7-footer can add to North Carolina’s rotation, even in low volume, could go a long way. It’d be nice to have one frontcourt shooter to help juice the offense in certain leverage situations or when things bog down in the half court.
Kessler’s development as a stretch-five matters beyond his time in Chapel Hill. As a prospect, this an an important piece for Kessler.
Walker Kessler's value as a prospect is largely tied to his projection as a shooter. There are reasons to trust & distrust his shooting ability:
+ 35.2 3P% (293 3PA)
◦ .240 3Pr (decent for a C)
– 67.8 FT% (423 FTA)
– Drastic year-to-year 3P/FT% inconsistency
— Trevor William Marks (@twmarks_) May 27, 2020
It’s obviously a lot easier to function with two post players on the floor if all three of the perimeter options offer some shooting; that mix can still spring open looks in secondary action while allowing for better half-court flow, too. But again, there are concerns with North Carolina’s wing shooting.
UNC is able to score out of this secondary look against Virginia Tech, but look where Bacot catches the ball as the trail man: well inside the 3-point arc. With no perimeter gravity, PJ Horne sags way off of Bacot, too.
This high-low give-and-go works because Brooks carves out great post position, right at the front of the rim, while Bacot (a crafty passer) skips a daring post-entry pass with his left hand around Horne. As Horne doubles, Bacot cuts behind for an easy finish. Even then, with Black stationed inside the arc, Tyrece Radford should’ve been more alert as a help defender to bump Bacot.
The Real Heel
Ultimately, UNC’s interior power and perimeter talent should win out in most matchups this season. The Tar Heels will obviously maul opponents on the offensive glass; it seems like a safe bet for UNC to land in the top five nationally in offensive rebound rate.
There’s a clear blueprint here — manage turnovers, dominate on the glass and at the rim and defend at a reasonably high level.