Roy Williams typically gives most of his roster the opportunity to prove themselves with some early season playing time even when he has a set lineup like he did last season. This year with so many questions surrounding the North Carolina Tar Heels roster every player not only was given a chance to prove themselves early, more spots in the rotation are up for grabs than we’re used to seeing with UNC.
Four freshman are being counted on to play big roles and make an immediate impact early in their careers and returning players are being counted to play bigger roles than ever before. The first two games of the season Roy used 11 players in the rotation. At the point guard position freshman Marcus Paige has been given the keys to the offense starting right away, a rarity at UNC. During the first two contests both Dexter Strickland and Luke Davis saw substantial time as the backups. However against Long Beach State which was essentially a road tuneup game prior to the team heading to Hawaii for the Maui Invitation, Davis rode the pine until the game was in hand.
Paige played well and has shown improvement in each game this season and had his best game offensively against LBS. Strickland who looked healthier and moved around better than I expected him to early in the season was given all the minutes as the backup point. Last season when Strickland was lost for the year with an ACL injury at the midway point in the regular season, UNC was caught in a tough position without anybody who had any experience at the position. This season with Davis, a transfer from Garner Webb, it appeared Roy would give Davis some run each game in order to establish a backup plan but as Paige plays better and Strickland gets healthier it appears that is not the plan at all.
Jackson Simmons is another player who saw time throughout the first two games who did not see the court until the final couple minutes against Long Beach. This is direct evidence that Roy is growing more and more comfortable with freshman Joel James and Brice Johnson who have combined for over 30 minutes per game so far this season. So far sophomore Desmond Hubert has started inside beside sophomore star James Michael McAdoo but has been replaced by one of the freshman to start the second half.
I expect this trend to continue as coach finds out more about the team and by the time the team returns home against UAB on December 1st we will have a much better idea of how the rotation will look for the rest of the season. I anticipate seeing both freshman big men to see their minutes increased while Huberts diminishes and for one of them, likely Joel James to take his spot in the starting lineup soon. On the perimeter somebody has got to separate themselves from the pack amongst PJ Hairston, Leslie McDonald and freshman JP Tokoto and cease more playing time for them self. With the solid play of the freshman and as the veterans on the perimeter start to find their shot as they did against LBS one thing is for sure so far during this young season, this team is deeper than we thought heading into the year.