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November 8, 2010North Carolina junior Justin Watts finds himself in an interesting situation for the Tar Heels heading into the upcoming regular season.
Considering all the perimeter depth the Tar Heels currently possesses---along with the recent dismissal of Will Graves---UNC head coach Roy Williams has decided to give Watts a chance for more playing time inside at the 'four' or power forward position.
"Yes (Watts is taking Graves's proposed role). It's drastically important for us," said Coach Williams after Friday night's exhibition win over Barton. "You're going to have foul trouble. You're going to have the flu. You're going to have those kinds of things."
While it's a little unorthodox for a 6-4 player to find himself playing in the post at a school like UNC that typically prides itself on frontcourt depth, Watts was more than willing to take on the challenge in order to have a more prominent role on this team.
"I said, 'Justin, would you like to try to play the 'four' spot some? If you do you'll get more minutes.' It's pretty easy. If you want to play you're going to play," said Williams.
"Not really (is it unnatural) if you want to play. I'd play center on the football team if I got a chance to play. That's the bottom line," the UNC coach added.
"I was fine with it," said Watts about the move inside. "I told Coach I didn't have a problem playing the 'four,' because when you're on the court you're a basketball player. It's not really a specific position. In the offense we run I'm going to be inside-outside."
"He (Williams) gives me a little bit of freedom. I just try to do what he asks me to do. It was a little surprising, but I've got to do what he tells me to do."
Coach Williams is hopeful that Watts' combination of veteran savvy and defensive awareness will make him a significant matchup problem inside---and if Friday night's game was any evidence, he's got a great chance of being just that.
Watts scored 13 points on six-of-seven shooting from the floor---including a three-pointer---and added three rebounds, three assists, and two steals.
"He (Watts) does some good things for us defensively---he talks defensively and keeps everybody aware," said Williams. "In our scrimmage the other day he caused two turnovers by fronting the post, and he caused another one (against Barton)---they tried to throw it over the top and threw it out of bounds."
"He is the most veteran, most experienced player that we have. Later in the season we might do some things with Harrison (Barnes) down there or Reggie (Bullock) down there---it depends on how they develop---but Justin is more experienced than those guys, and he's really doing a nice job," Williams continued. "He's got to be a big-time player."
"If he goes six-for-seven every night he'll really be a big-time player, but he'll be crucial for us out there."
"Yeah, it felt pretty good (Friday night)," Watts said. "When I first got here the game was like a blur, but now since I've been here for a while I've learned to slow the game down as I play, make smarter decisions, and slow myself down while I'm playing."
"It's a lot easier once you know the system and you've been here for a while," he added.
"Coach has been in my ear two years and now I notice things that I didn't notice when I was in high school watching a game here on a visit or something like that. So yeah, I do look at it differently."
Watts knows that he's giving up considerable size to taller post players, but he's also capable with his athleticism of making them work hard to guard him.
He's also able to draw them outside---which can open things up in the paint for Carolina's big men.
"I can step outside and draw the big guy away---which also opens it up for 'Z' (Tyler Zeller) and John (Henson) and Justin Knox down there to work a little bit more---it's not so crowded," Watts said.
"Also on defense I can use my quickness to give them a little matchup problem. They're not used to a smaller guy stripping at the ball and stuff like that."
"I've got to use my quickness. I've got to draw them outside the three-point line a little bit," Watts continued. "It's kind of different from playing the guard spot, but the defense we play, we're in the lane. We're denying. So I'm doing the same things a guard would do, and a guard would have to do the same thing I was doing if they were in the post."
Watts is well-known among the UNC players for being one of the strongest pound-for-pound players on the entire Tar Heel team---which should aid his play in the middle.
His jumping ability should also help him.
"I think (my strength) allows me to be more physical with the big guys. I can use my quickness, but also if they pin me down or I get trapped under there I can push my way out of there if I can," Watts said.
"They're so much taller than me. Even if I jump higher than them they've still got me by a wing span, but (being able to jump) does help me a lot in tough situations such as blocking shots and stuff like that," he added.
Coach Williams broke down specifically what he's looking for out of Watts. Namely, he's looking for him to be a vocal leader and a defensive presence first and foremost.
"(Coach wants me to) do the little things---help the young guys out on defense, talk to them since I've been here for a while," Watts said. "Defense, offensive rebounds---just the little things that people don't notice and don't show up in the stat book---just keep doing those."
"(Also) talking, being a leader, being more vocal with the young guys, helping them through plays that they don't know---defensive calls and stuff like that---and being an extended coach on the floor."
Watts knows he's been given a unique opportunity to provide a considerably larger role on this year's team than his sophomore year, when an ankle injury slowed him down for much of the season.
He's trying to take advantage of every minute he can get on the floor, and he's excited about playing with a talented group of young players that are out to prove something this year.
"A door has been opened for me. I just want to take advantage of this opportunity and do the best I can do," he said. "I just think we're out to prove a point this year."
"We're more into it, enthused, and everybody wants to be the best they can be on this team. I'm not saying that last year's wasn't like that, but I think we're just out to prove a point right now."