With Armando Bacot likely back, how will UNC balance a crowded frontcourt?

Things are about to get congested in North Carolina’s frontcourt. After UNC’s 28-point loss to Syracuse at the ACC Tournament, freshman power forward/center Armando Bacot mentioned that he plans to return for his sophomore season.

Bacot, a former 5-star recruit, averaged 9.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game this season. While starting 32 games, Bacot shot 46.9 percent from the floor (60 FG% at the rim). His decision to return isn’t a surprise; however, it does create an interesting proposition for next season.

Due to roster limitations, North Carolina leaned on bully-ball this season; Bacot shared the floor frequently with All-ACC big man Garrison Brooks. That duo combined for 71 dunks and helped power UNC to an offensive rebound rate of 35.3 percent, which ranked 12th nationally.

However, UNC struggled with spacing and floor balance issues; Brooks and Bacot combined for just seven 3-point attempts this season — all from Brooks. This had a negative impact on the team’s secondary offense and half-court spacing, as Cole Anthony (53.6 FG% on close 2PA) struggled to finish at the rim.

(Some of those issues for Anthony went beyond the system/personnel, of course. The talented rookie guard dealt with an injury and lacked a necessary burst — the ability to separate from defenders and finish in the lane.)

Not all of those spacing issue can be attributed to playing two traditional bigs, too. With the exception of Brandon Robinson, UNC wings offered next to nothing in terms of secondary shooting. North Carolina ranked outside the top 200 nationally in spot-up efficiency, per Synergy Sports: 0.87 points per possession.

The 6-foot-10 Bacot entered the season as an intriguing prospect, though his 2020 draft aspirations were likely limited to second-round status, at best. Bacot isn’t a one-and-done prospect, but he’s a skilled big with a good frame — one with a higher ceiling than we saw this season. An industrious offensive rebounder (11.7 percent offensive rebound rate, though that dropped in ACC play), Bacot can also help facilitate half-court offense as a passer (2 assists per 40 minutes), which adds upside to his profile.

It’s objectively good for Roy Williams and UNC to have Bacot return. He will get better, and there’s potential for him to be a seriously impactful two-way big next season. There are downstream effects to his return, though.

With regard to playing time: will this decision create other complications for the coaching staff?


Brooks Back + The New Guys

The Tar Heels will likely return their starting frontcourt: Bacot and Brooks, a rising senior. Brooks has built himself into an excellent college player; however, it’s highly unlikely that he would depart for the professional ranks now. There are very real limitations for a 4/5 prospect that can’t stretch the floor (7 career 3PA, 63 FT% career) or protect the rim (0.7 blocks per 40 minutes).

Along with that, the No. 3 recruiting class in the country is set to arrive in Chapel Hill next season. That five-man group is powered by two 5-star center prospects: Walker Kessler and Day’Ron Sharpe — both top-20 recruits.

This is a ways away, but this quartet of players raises questions as to how minutes will allocate during the 2020-21 season. In terms of playing time, Williams has only 80 minutes per game to space out between the 4 and 5 in North Carolina’s system. What does that minutes rotation look like?

At 6-foot-11, Sterling Manley is another big body that could factor into the mix, too. Manley showcased nice two-way potential as a freshman (2.6 blocks per 40 minutes), but he’s played in just six games (nine total minutes) since the calendar flipped to 2019 while dealing with various injuries.

In theory, this a good problem to have; North Carolina will feature arguably the most talented frontcourt in the country next season. Most coaches would dream for this situation. However, it’s a little clunky to feature one talented upperclassman with three underclassmen who have NBA aspirations; UNC (likely) won’t play more than two of those bigs together at the same time.

This creates questions from a minutes standpoint. The calculus of which is slightly more advanced than dividing up 80 minutes of frontcourt play equally and giving all four guys 20 minutes of playing time.


Past Experiences

This isn’t necessarily a new concern, though. Even isolated for just his time as UNC’s head coach, Williams has plenty of experience juggling minutes along his frontline. The 2004-05 national title team split minutes between Sean May, Jawad Williams and the ageless Marvin Williams — then a stud freshman. That season, all three guys averaged between 22 and 27 minutes per game. According to KenPom, May led the team with a usage rate of 28 percent, a monster number. Jawad and Marvin hovered just under 21 percent in terms of usage.

That’s a fairly nice balance — both in terms of minutes distribution and usage, with May as the team’s functional alpha. However, it’s also a lot easier to divvy up those 80 minutes with three players as opposed four.

The 2011-12 team took a similar approach with three future pros, too: Tyler Zeller, John Henson and James Michael “2 Ringz” McAdoo. Zeller started all 38 games that season and played an average of 28.2 minutes per game. Henson played in 35 games (34 starts) while averaging 29.1 minutes. As a freshman, JMM played in all 38 games (3 starts) and averaged 15.6 minutes.

In terms of usage, Zeller was second on the roster, overall: 24.6 percent (behind only Harrison Barnes, 26.2 percent). Henson checked in with a usage rate of 22.1 percent; JMM, in more limited minutes, posted a usage rate of 20 percent.


Close But Not Quite

The 2015-16 team — which had a big man rotation of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James — is a potentially useful comparison.

During his monstrous All-ACC senior season, Johnson appeared in all 40 games (39 starts): 28 minutes per game (24.6 percent usage rate). Meeks appeared in 33 games (28 starts): 20.6 minutes per game (21.9 percent usage rate). Hicks factored in on all 40 games (3 starts), too: 18.7 minutes per game (21.3 percent usage rate). The more lightly-used James was the caboose: 37 games, 7.8 minutes per game (16.5 percent usage rate).

Of that group, only Johnson was drafted into the NBA: No. 25 overall by the Los Angeles Clippers. Johnson played in just 21 career NBA games, though, before departing the league after two seasons.

The 2016-17 national title team mauled opponents on the glass (41.3 percent offensive rebound rate) with the trio of Meeks, Hicks and freshman Tony Bradley, a future one-and-done draft pick. Before his evolution as an offensive fulcrum, Luke Maye was valuable bench contributor as well. All four of those guys posted individual offensive rebound rates of at least 8.5 percent.

  • Meeks: 40 games, 40 starts, 24.3 minutes per game, 22.6 percent usage rate

  • Hicks: 39 games, 39 starts, 23.3 minutes per game, 21.5 percent usage rate

  • Bradley: 38 games, 0 starts, 14.6 minutes per game, 21.4 percent usage rate

  • Maye: 35 games, 1 start, 14.1 minutes per game, 19.7 percent usage rate

According to Synergy Sports, North Carolina led the nation with 414 points off put-back possessions that season (10.4 points per game). UNC ranks inside the top five nationally in this metric on an almost annual basis; however, that’s the only time in Synergy’s database, which dates to the 2006-07 season, that a team has eclipsed the 400-point benchmark.

In terms of post possessions that season, the veteran Meeks received the lion share, though Bradley and Hicks were active on the block, too. Regardless, the usage rates are fairly similar.

As good as that group was, though, most of the college-level production didn’t translate to future NBA success. Of those four, only Bradley was drafted into the NBA — No. 28 overall in 2017. And while the Utah Jazz staff loves Bradley’s potential and work ethic, it’s taken nearly three seasons for Bradley to crack the rotation. He’s still mostly a depth/developmental player off the bench.

Hicks is the only other player of that group to play NBA minutes. He enjoyed several cups of coffee with the New York Knicks across two seasons.


Is There A Better Comparison?

En route to another national title in 2009, UNC dominated with a balanced offense (No. 1 in adjusted efficiency): Ty Lawson (60.7 eFG%) pushing the pace, Wayne Ellington (41.7 3P%) and Danny Green (41.8 3P%) filling the wings, and a strong frontcourt, led by Tyler Hansbrough, controlling the paint.

Hansbrough started 34 games that season and averaged just over 30 minutes per contest. Deon Thompson and Ed Davis, another talented rookie, joined Hansbrough as the main guys along UNC’s frontline that year. Thompson made 37 starts and averaged just under 25 minutes per game. Davis, who returned for his sophomore season in 2009-10, played in all 38 games and averaged 18.8 minutes per contest.

With a usage rate of 26.7 percent, which ranked inside the top 200 nationally, Hansbrough (16.9 FGA per 40 minutes) was the team’s primary finisher.

Davis wasn’t the only talented freshman big on that roster, though. Future ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller entered the program that year, too. Similar to Sharpe and Kessler in the same class, Davis and Zeller ranked as top-20 prospects. Zeller played in only 15 games, made two starts and averaged just 7.8 minutes per game.

Davis, Zeller and Hansbrough have gone on to play over 1,500 career NBA games combined — and counting, thanks to Easy Ed. That’s pretty incredible future pro talent all on the same college roster. (Over the last decade, Thompson built a solid career playing in Europe.)

Williams managed to balance the rotation exceptionally well that year, with a few caveats. The 2008-09 college season took place in the One and Done era, but things hadn’t quite taken off yet. Davis and Zeller both primarily came off the bench that season; neither of those two left for the draft after their rookie season, either. In fact, Zeller stuck around all four years. That doesn’t happen with too many borderline top-15 recruits.

Injuries played a role here, too. Hansbrough sat out several games to start the season with a stress reaction to his right shin. Zeller also missed nearly two full months of games after suffering a left arm/wrist injury late in a November win over Kentucky. Ultimately, Zeller played just 117 minutes that season.

The logic may seem backwards, but these types of developments can simplify playing time quandaries. ESPN NBA announcer Jeff Van Gundy will occasional bring this up during broadcasts: timely injuries help a coach balance out a rotation. It’s not apples to apples to compare the slog of an 82-game NBA regular season to that of a college campaign, which features far fewer games and available minutes. However, the notion holds some value: again, it’s easier to split that 80-minute pie among three players.


Looking Forward

At this point, it’s overeager to forecast much of the 2020-21 college hoops season. The 2020 NCAA Tournament was supposed to start today, literally. The NBA pre-draft process remains in limbo as the globe works to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth kicking the tires on some of the possibilities, though.

In terms of offensive output (46.4 eFG%), North Carolina was historically bad this season under Roy Williams — in a variety of metrics. There are pieces to replace as well — most notably Cole Anthony, after he declares for the 2020 NBA Draft. (Who knows when, exactly, that event will take place.) But the cavalry is coming.

Caleb Love is here to grab the UNC point guard baton and run (really fast) with it. Undersized combo guard RJ Davis and wing Puff Johnson arrive as well.

Other swing pieces include Leaky Black and Andrew Platek finding some semblance of a perimeter shot. Black is an industrious, versatile defender (the dude is long), but until he finds a jumper, issues with offensive fit will occur. For what it’s worth, Black offers some small-ball utility at the 4 as well. (Black just doesn’t shoot an easy ball at the moment. It’s like he’s trying to hoist a medicine ball to the rim when he shoots from the midrange and beyond.)

It’s one thing to play with two traditional (non-shooting) posts together. The challenge becomes far greater if one or more of the wings also function as a non-shooter. It can be difficult to offset spacing issues with three non-shooters on the floor together — no matter how savvy some players screen and cut off ball. Opposing defenses can pack the paint, rotate coverages and load up on select players. (Offensive rebounding can work as an elixir to this as well.)

A somewhat congested frontcourt really is just an uncreative way of defining what Williams and the Heels have: options. And all of those options are really, really good. The ways Williams managed a frontcourt rotation over a decade ago could easily have no bearing on what happens in 2021 — it should be noted.

But the way this group of four blends together will be fascinating; it’s more than just a mild curiosity over minutes.

Will anyone in that bunch develop an outside shot? (Shooting reduces so many of these potential issues). How will the combinations work in passing tandems — high-low, short rolls, post-to-post? This is where Bacot’s development could be really significant. How long does it take the freshmen to learn the system? What do their assorted net rating and on-off splits look like? Which duo becomes North Carolina’s preferred crunch-time combination?

There’s plenty of time to figure that out. For now, in a time without actual basketball, it’s fun to just imagine the possibilities.