|It's gonna be a different kind of UNC team this year, but of course it should be a very good one. (AP)|
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When you walk into the Smith Center, it's common to see the court littered with future pros. Almost expected. Last year the Tar Heels had four -- all picked in the first round.
This year's Tar Heels group is completely different. There's projected lottery pick James Michael McAdoo, who could have left and been a first-rounder after last season, and then plenty of question marks. No other sure-fire NBA guys -- and even McAdoo is somewhat of a mystery to some after struggling to accept his reserve role last season playing behind Tyler Zeller and John Henson.
Here are a few of my takeaways after watching North Carolina practice on Thursday. I'll be at Duke on Friday night and North Carolina State on Saturday:
1) Roy Williams and Carolina have seemingly always had a guy who could score in the post, whether it was Tyler Hansbrough, Zeller or even Deon Thompson. That's not McAdoo's strength, and there's truly no one else ready to give UNC anything significant on the block. This could be an issue in Chapel Hill this season. "Our first look is always definitely to the post," Reggie Bullock said. "To me, I don't think Mack (McAdoo) is more of a back-to-the-basket guy. He's more of a forward who slashes and finishes."
2) That means this team is going to get most of its scoring on the wings and in transition. McAdoo and wing Reggie Bullock should be the team's leading scorers -- and they've also already clearly emerged as team leaders. "I don't feel like people have seen the real me," Bullock said. "It wasn't my team."
3) McAdoo is a stud who can do it all. I realize he only averaged 6.1 points and 3.9 boards last season as a freshman (in just 15.6 minutes per game), but the 6-foot-9, 225-pound sophomore plays with a high-motor, is strong and athletic -- and can score in a variety of ways. He's most comfortable facing the basket, but he's added a couple of nice finesse moves in the post. I'd be surprised if McAdoo isn't one of the best players in the country -- for a couple of reasons. North Carolina needs him badly and he's more than capable. McAdoo is extremely active on the glass and is healthy. He's a matchup nightmare due to his combination of strength, athleticism, quickness and skill set. A year ago, he missed much of the preseason with knee issues. Now he's healthy and he said his mind is also in a much better place.
4) I love freshman point guard Marcus Paige. He's not Kendall Marshall in terms of advancing the ball and getting everyone on the court open looks, but Paige is a true point guard who makes quality decisions -- and the major advantage he has over Marshall is that he can really shoot the ball. The downside? He's only 157 pounds and will have difficulty absorbing contact and finishing in the lane. Williams told me last week that he's handing the ball to Paige, which might hurt the team early in the season as he adjusts, but it'll pay off come ACC play. "Once he learns the system, he'll do well for us," Bullock said.
5) Freshman big man Joel James will have to play, but he's probably a year away from being a legitimate factor. He's got a man's body (McAdoo referred to him as a "beast," but he's behind in terms of the mental aspect. The issue is that fellow big man Desmond Hubert isn't ready for a big-time role, either, and McAdoo is at his best while playing at the power forward spot.
6) I'm not sure what's happened to P.J. Hairston. This kid was a dead-eye shooter a few years ago on the summer circuit with insane range. Now he is struggling to make shots (he made just 28 percent of his 3s last season) -- and also misses defensive assignments. Bullock, who endured similar issues as a freshman two years ago with his shot, said it's all about confidence. If Hairston doesn't figure it out soon and regain his swagger from downtown, he could find himself spending most of his time on the bench.
7) It'll be interesting to see who gets the minutes at the wing besides Bullock -- who should get 30-plus virtually every night. There's Hairston and then veterans Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald -- who are both returning from season-ending knee injuries. McDonald and Strickland didn't look quite 100 percent yet. "The mental part is the most difficult thing," Strickland said. "Just trusting yourself." Even Strickland said he's uncertain how the wing spots will shake out. "You've gotta ask coach," he said.
8) Freshman forward Brice Johnson has a chance to be terrific, but his issue could be similar to that of Paige. He's just not physically strong enough yet. UNC's most effective lineup -- at least on the offensive end -- could be with Johnson as a face-up four-man and McAdoo at the center spot. However, Johnson will have difficulty guarding big, strong power forwards at this stage of his career.
9) Williams looked to have his energy back after the recent health scare and surgery to remove a tumor from his kidney. He said he's still easing his way back, but honestly, I didn't notice much of a difference in his demeanor or actions on the court.
10) The chemistry of this group should be improved. It's not as though it was bad last year, but that group all had the NBA on their mind after bypassing the chance to go to the league two years ago. McAdoo will likely embrace the opportunity to be a leader and go-to guy, as will be the case with Bullock. Expect this to be a closer-knit group than the 2011-12 edition that was far more talented.