Almost immediately after North Carolina’s season ended in Kansas City, there was speculation about which of UNC’s “Big Three” would go pro. Roy Williams and the Tar Heels were able to keep two of them: sophomores P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo will return next season, while Reggie Bullock (a junior) will enter the NBA Draft.
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Hairston was UNC’s leading scorer with 14.6 points per game, and he shot 39.6 percent from 3-point range. McAdoo averaged 14.4 points and a team-high 7.3 rebounds, struggling at times with his shooting but showing flashes of the player who caught the attention of NBA scouts as a freshman.
How good does this make UNC next season? Well, that depends largely on the development of players currently on the roster who aren’t in that “Big Three”. McAdoo is a natural forward, not a center. In UNC’s small lineup, he was playing out of position at center. It seems unlikely that he would have returned to school if Williams planned on playing him at center again.
So who will play center for UNC? Incoming freshman center Kennedy Meeks (listed on Scout.com at 6-8, 290) is a possibility. But the Tar Heels will need more from Joel James, Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert. Williams started all three at the five-spot multiple times last season, but none were consistent enough. Often, they were non-factors offensively (in Hubert’s case) or a liability defensively (like Johnson). Or both.
Hairston’s return certainly makes it seem like the Tar Heels will have the whole 3-point shooting thing covered. But part of what made Hairston such a lethal threat from 3-point range was other teams having to pay attention to Bullock as well. Point guard Marcus Paige was a good, but not great, 3-point shooter.
Leslie McDonald will have to step up as a redshirt senior and fill that void, and it remains to be seen if he can. He was wildly inconsistent last season, and even served a three-game suspension in the middle of the season after sitting out three games with a knee injury. He finished the season shooting 36 percent (35.9 percent from 3-point range but just 26.7 percent in ACC play). He didn’t score in double digits in any of UNC’s final 10 games.
McDonald is going to have to be as valuable a defensive presence as the now-graduated Dexter Strickland was last season, and he’s going to have to knock down the occasional 3-pointer too. UNC’s other shooting guard options at this point are very limited, unless Hairston moves from the three-spot.
At the moment, North Carolina’s incoming class isn’t great by UNC standards, but it’s pretty solid, featuring 6-8 forward Isaiah Hicks (the AP Player of the Year in North Carolina), Meeks and point guard Nate Britt. But it could get better if the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Andrew Wiggins, picks UNC. That seemed like a remote possibility at best not long ago, and is now a distinct one.
Wiggins is said to have narrowed down his choices to North Carolina, Florida State, Kentucky and Kansas. It’s certainly a possibility that Wiggins was waiting on the three North Carolina players — Bullock, McAdoo and Hairston — to make their decisions before he made his. It’s difficult to know if Bullock’s decision to leave will have much impact on Wiggins, but it can’t hurt. It’s one less wing scorer to compete with for playing time and shots.
Even if Wiggins doesn’t choose UNC, though, the Tar Heels certainly put themselves in much better shape for a successful 2013-14 season. They’ll bring back experienced talent, and teams that do that under Roy Williams tend to do well. UNC has returned 67 percent of its scoring or more under Williams five times — those teams all reached the Elite 8, three got to the Final Four and two won the national title.
It doesn’t necessarily mean anything, of course, but UNC will return about 72 percent of its scoring from last season. And stats are always fun. After all, this past season, UNC returned its lowest percentage of returning scoring since 2009-10, when the Tar Heels missed the NCAA tournament for the first and only time under Williams. But this season turned out just fine as the Tar Heels were 9-3 in their final 12 games after starting 16-8.
Could a guy like Wiggins be the real difference between UNC being a top 10-15 team and a national title contender? Perhaps. If Bullock had stayed, would that have done it? Maybe. The point remains, though, that UNC still has a lot of the same issues that caused it to struggle at the beginning of the season from a personnel perspective. And if those individuals don’t get better, the Tar Heels will be just a good team. But not great.