Thoughts from the UNC-Pembroke Exhibition

In what is essentially a glorified practice, it’s hard to draw too many concrete conclusions about what lies ahead for the season. So I’ll try to ignore the big-picture things (e.g., Carolina’s sluggish start, 14-0 run fueled by freshmen + Bullock, etc.) and just post a few observations:

Roy Williams: In observing Roy’s substitution pattern, I was surprised by how closely it resembled his pattern for a typical regular-season game. I thought there might be more experimental line-ups and even more scorer’s-table chaos than usual. Really, though, it was a tight 9-man rotation for most of the game’s first 30 minutes. Bullock replaced Strickland at the 2 around the under-16 timeout, then Strickland replaced Marshall at the 1 near the under-12 timeout. I’d expect that rotation pattern to be rather consistent. The starting 5 played 12.9 minutes as a unit (in which they led 34-23)– a total that’s in line with how they’re used in the regular season. As McAdoo gains seasoning, he’ll be the first frontcourt reserve (it was Watts-for-Henson vs. Pembroke). And the starters will play more total minutes in close games, of course. But already, Roy seems to have a very good handle on how he wants to utilize his personnel this season.

Reggie Bullock and P.J Hairston: Carolina’s wing reserves were fantastic on both ends of the court against UNC-Pembroke. They knocked down perimeter shots, displayed a strong on-court chemistry (assisting on a few of each other’s 3-pointers, including a slick dribble hand-off from Bullock to Hairston), and gave the UNC offense a shot in the arm when entering the game. In 14.4 minutes with the Hairston/Bullock wing combo on the floor (7.4 with White, 4.0 with Strickland, and 3.0 with Marshall), the Heels led  39-17.

Of equal importance, both reserves played inspired and active defense. Hairston showed signs of being a Danny Green-type defender (although trading off some blocks for drawn charges)– a little slow laterally to lock down elite guards individually, but a guy who will be a disruptive force as a help-side defender. Bullock’s help rotations can be a little crisper, but he’s shown the potential to be a great on-ball/one-pass-away defender in the Carolina system. He has quick hands, quick feet, and the type of length/anticipation that should make him a menace in the passing lanes. If Bullock and/or Hairston are able to effectively cover big-time 2s (when Strickland rests or slides over to the 1), the Heels will have very few defensive weak spots. I still think Bullock will be the best bet to provide the non-Strickland defensive minutes against a high-scoring opposing 2.

Harrison Barnes: Barnes was making a conscious effort to get into the paint against UNC-Pembroke, bypassing a couple of clean 3-point looks in the process. The result was 10 trips to the free throw line– a promising sign (especially since he made 9). There were also some contested misses in the paint and a couple of offensive fouls (both in transition). Barnes is clearly stronger in the upper body, and better served to absorb paint contact. But it’s still not clear if his ball-handling is likewise strengthened. Carolina has added a wrinkle to its half-court offense/set play repertoire that involves running Barnes off of a baseline flex cut to free him on the low block. They called this set twice versus Pembroke, resulting in a shooting foul (on a good entry from Bullock) and a turnover (on a bad entry from Henson). Barnes also got a post touch within the context of UNC’s normal free-lance passing game– sealing off a smaller defender on the low block after a routine ball reversal/skip pass. This post-up led to a smooth (dare I say, Jordanesque?) turnaround jumper.

Kendall Marshall: It appeared that Marshall was just going through the motions on both ends. There wasn’t a strong sense of urgency to create plays off the dribble or try to get into the paint. Marshall did have his usual complement of well-timed, perfectly-placed post entries. Defensively, he went under a couple of early ball screens that led to clean 3-point looks for UNC-Pembroke. His ball pressure wasn’t overwhelming either, although he controlled penetration well as a trade-off. I expect that Marshall will be a little more aggressive on the offensive end once the games start to matter. He’s not a Lawson/Felton type of lead guard, though, one of the reasons why the 2012 Heels could be more susceptible to being shut down/taken out of their offense than the ’05 or ’09 editions.

Tyler Zeller: A typically efficient, under-the-radar double-double from Zeller. His 18 points (on just 8 FGAs) were pretty quiet– one signature jump-hook from the right baseline, but otherwise just a lot of lay-ups and free throws. He missed a few chippies, but also showed more of a willingness to attack the hoop. If Zeller can show the ability to use a couple of dribbles in the post (and/or post footwork/up-and-unders/drop-steps, step-throughs) to get to the rim (and the foul line), it would really help him take that next step to “consistently dominating collegiate big man.” UNC-Pembroke was definitely a step in that direction– albeit against an undersized and over-matched frontline. His defensive performance was typical Zeller, too– two drawn charges, terrific positional post defense, and a few offensive boards allowed/average defensive rebounding.

John Henson: After attempting six field goals in the first half, Henson shot just one (plus two free throws) in the second. He made a face-up jumper that looked pretty smooth. He also rushed (and missed)  a 15-foot catch-and-shoot jumper. Henson missed his only two jump hooks, traveled on a post move, and still looked very much like a work-in-progress on the the offensive end. Two of his three baskets came on tip-ins, and I still think he’s at his best as a low-usage/high-efficiency garbage man (tips, lob dunks, transition hoops). It looks like he’s trying to showcase his mid-range game more; that’s the right move for his future, but not necessarily for the offensive efficiency of the 2012 Heels. He was his typically dominant self on the defensive end– no worries there whatsoever.

Dexter Strickland: About what you might expect from Dex– 5 made hoops, all at the rim. He did have a nice “and-1” finish from the left side with the left hand, something that bodes well for him as paint scorer. There was still no semblance of a perimeter game or a floater in the paint. But against many teams, Strickland’s end-to-end speed can be nearly unstoppable. His handle looked a little tighter, and the offense ran smoothly in his minutes at point guard. He complements Marshall well in a couple key areas (ability to push tempo via the dribble, and ability to cover lightning-quick point guards), but that tandem still has some question marks against zone defenses and in the halfcourt. It will be interesting to see how Williams allocates the minutes between the Marshall-Strickland and Marshall-Hairston or Bullock backcourts. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Dexter getting a couple more minutes at the (back-up) 1 and a couple less at the 2. He had three impressive defensive denies/forced resets within the game’s first eight minutes; Strickland will make the opponent’s top backcourt scorer work hard for his points.

James Michael McAdoo: The highly-regarded freshman scored within seconds of entering the game on a hit-ahead pass from Marshall. McAdoo made an athletic catch-and-finish on that transition play, and his speed/agility will be a good fit for Marshall’s brand of fastbreak basketball (advancing via the long pass as opposed to the dribble). McAdoo struggled some to carve out good post position, and is certainly a work-in-progress as a back-to-the-basket scorer. He did convert 5 of 6 free throws, although one banked in, and two got generous rolls after hitting hard off the back rim. McAdoo was very active defensively, and obviously possesses great physical gifts. He intercepted a screen-and-roll entry pass by using his elite quickness and length to recover to his man after hedging on the perimeter. He should be a perfect fit for Carolina’s preferred style of hedging/recovering high ball screens.

Justin Watts: He played 11 of his 13 minutes at the 4 (as opposed to the wing), and it appears as if he’ll once again be UNC’s 4th post player (and not part of the wing mix). He’s essentially the same guy as last year (see the Tip-off profile on Watts for discussion), although the free-throw stroke looked a little smoother.

Zoning the underneath in-bounds: Carolina continued its defensive in-bounds strategy from last year of having Henson (or the reserve 4) defend the ball with the other four Heels playing a match-up zone (then quickly recovering to the nearest available opponent once the ball is in-bounded). This led to one turnover (a deflection and steal by Henson) as well as one 3-pointer allowed (after Zeller was mismatched onto a UNC-Pembroke guard). This is definitely a risk-reward style of defending the underneath in-bounds. Henson’s length can result in some deflections and turnovers. But the mismatches that the zone-to-man chaos create can be exploited by well-coached teams (last season, both Virginia Tech and Duke set up some easy/open 3-pointers and drives for its best players by taking advantage of  UNC’s scrambling recoveries).  In general, this strategy for defending the underneath in-bounds doesn’t make a huge difference on the scoreboard (as opposed to UNC’s old strategy of switching all screens, or many teams’ preferred strategy of zoning these possessions). It does lead to more immediate good (forced turnover) or bad (quick 3-pointer/drive off of a mismatch) plays, however, which is consistent with Williams’s “push tempo/maximize possessions” mantra. In close-and-late situations, though, the staff might want to consider more risk-averse strategies for guarding the in-bounds entry.

About Adrian

I'm the editor of Maple Street Press's Tar Heel Tip-off, and live in Raleigh with my wife and 2-year-old daughter. I grew up along the banks of the Allegheny River, and terrorized the WPIAL as a pass-first point guard. Follow me on Twitter @FreeportKid.
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