CHAPEL HILL, NC — North Carolina is a work in progress. That was apparent Friday night. But the Tar Heels also have an intriguing upside, one that will make every game fascinating to say the least.
UNC must replace four players that were elected in the first round of last summer’s NBA draft, three of whom had eligibility remaining. On Friday, it defeated Gardner-Webb, 76-59, in its season opener at the Dean Smith Center, and really didn’t look all that impressive in doing so.
But that’s okay, it was the first game with new faces mixed in with returning players asked to handle very different roles from a season ago.
The negatives were pretty obvious: Loaded with perimeter talent, the Tar Heels converted just 1 of 12 3-point attempts; that they attempted only 12 – and four were by P.J. Hairston in the final three minutes – is also something that was a bit surprising, and perhaps even a little perplexing.
The Tar Heels were just 9-for-19 from the free-throw line and had 14 assists against 18 turnovers – including zero and four, respectively, for freshman point guard Marcus Paige.
Given North Carolina’s youth and the newness of everything it’s trying to employ, however, the positives were enough to build on.
“Marcus made some mistakes, but I thought he was in charge out there and learned some things tonight,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “J.P. (Tokoto) didn’t play as many minute … but he’s an active body. I thought Joel (James) and Brice (Johnson) were so much better in the first half than they were in the second half. Perhaps they got winded a little bit…
“I liked them, I think all four of the guys gave us something and hopefully it’s something we can grow on.”
At times, the new guys appeared more comfortable than the vets. They were looser, played with confidence and were aggressive. They are also talented and fill multiple needs.
Paige would have registered quite a few dimes had fellow Heels converted open jumpers and a few layups they missed. The 6-foot freshman played with his head up, was quick in how he moved his feet and was intent on having the ball move quickly. He’s a quarterback with scoring ability.
The Twitter world went bananas Friday night comparing him to former UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, who was a first-round draft choice last summer. But while they look alike, wear the same number and are left-handed, Marshall and Paige aren’t the same players. The comparisons actually don’t bother Paige because he doesn’t even acknowledge them.
“We both wear number five, we’re both left-handed,” Paige said. “He was a great player, had a unique skill set and everything. I try not to buy into the comparison too much or worry about that too much… If coach wants to compare us, that’s fine. I’m just trying to work on what I can bring to the table for this team, and I think that’s a little bit different than what Kendall brought.”
Johnson has a wide range of potential. He’s already active on the glass, on defense and thinks he can block every shot within a few feet. That will change, as he left his feet several times when a simple box out would have led to a rebound.
Tokoto (6-5) is long yet comfortable on the perimeter. Teammates swear he’s an excellent 3-point shooter, though it wasn’t apparent on this night. He flowed nicely, and appears to have savvy that will allow his game to consistently grow.
James is a 6-10, 260-pound beast who has only played the game for a few years, so he doesn’t appear to have many poor habits that need breaking. On one post move early in the second half, he did a nice job of getting position on the lower block, used his lower body to seal the defender, caught the entry pass, turned and scored with his left hand. It was a veteran play, and one Williams wants to see more of.
Of the vets, sophomore James Michael McAdoo could have been a lottery pick had he gone pro, but he returned for several reasons. One was to learn how to be a go-to guy at this level. One night in, and McAdoo is off to a great start to this campaign. He finished with 26 points and 14 rebounds, though Williams would rather he not attempt 20 shots to get those points.
This wasn’t a game UNC fans will bottle for future viewing, but it was important in that the newbies got quality minutes, Williams saw a bunch of rotations, and Carolina notched a victory. That’s what early November games are often about.