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May 2, 2014
A Look Ahead: Power Forwards
North Carolina heads into the 2014-2015 season for the most part a veteran team, though they'll be missing graduating senior Leslie McDonald, early NBA entrant James Michael McAdoo, and a couple walk-ons from last year's squad.
In all UNC brings back six scholarship players who are either juniors or seniors and a total of nine players with playing experience, as well as a three-man freshman class ranked fifth overall nationally by Rivals.com who were all ranked individually in the top 30.
Theoretically, it's the type of team that Roy Williams would say has a better chance than some of his younger UNC squads over the past few years to have a shot at winning big.
But the big question is without any incoming power forwards and centers, can the returning players pick up in McAdoo's absence and step up beyond their performances last year to get the Tar Heels back to the top of the ACC for the first time in three years, and back to the Final Four for the first time since the 2009 NCAA championship squad?
In the first of a four-part series breaking down the Tar Heels heading into next season, take a look at how the team stacks up at the power forward position.
LOSING: James Michael McAdoo (14.2 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game, 45.8 percent FG %, 45 steals, 31 blocked shots, 30.1 minutes per game)
RETURNING: Brice Johnson (10.3 points per game, 6.1 rebounds per game, 56.6 percent FG %, 25 steals, 43 blocked shots, 19.4 minutes per game)
Desmond Hubert (0.6 points per game, 1.1 rebounds per game, 46.7 percent FG %, 12 blocked shots, 6.1 minutes per game)
Isaiah Hicks (1.2 points per game, 1.0 rebounds per game, 41.7 percent FG %, 5 steals, 12 blocked shots, 7.3 minutes per game)
Jackson Simmons (1.0 points per game, 1.1 rebounds per game, 55 percent FG %, 5 steals, 1 blocked shot, 5.8 minutes per game)
This coming season could turn out to be a real breakout for Johnson, who finished fourth on the UNC roster in scoring in 2013-2014 while easily leading the team in blocked shots and field goal percentage. He finished second behind McAdoo in rebounding.
Now that McAdoo is gone, Johnson has a golden opportunity to step into the starting lineup and be a force for the Tar Heels if he can improve defensively. It's never been a question about Johnson's explosiveness and quick-scoring capability on the offensive end. It's been all about improving his ability to handle opposing big men and avoiding giving up ground with his thin frame.
Johnson started only two games last season and averaged 19.4 minutes per game to get his 10.3 scoring average, so theoretically if he started playing 25 to 30 minutes per game he could very well become a 15 points-per-game or more kind of guy.
But for the Tar Heels to be as good as they can be in 2014-2015, he's got to become a lock-down defender in the post.
Everyone knows Johnson can block shots, but can he draw more charges and use some of his better attributes like his athleticism and quick hands to draw more turnovers? If so, Johnson could truly develop into an All-ACC caliber player, because the offensive game is there.
Hubert has not proven himself to be a scorer over his first three years at UNC, so it would seem the Tar Heels are better suited to have Johnson in the starting lineup, but he can certainly be a serviceable backup after recording 12 blocked shots and 34 rebounds. Hubert may very well also play at the 'five,' as he's done the past few seasons, behind Kennedy Meeks and Joel James, but it's likely he'll also get playing time this coming season at the power forward, or 'four' spot.
Simmons saw just about as much game action this past season as Hubert---Simmons played 184 minutes, or 5.8 minutes per game, to Hubert's 189 minutes, or 6.1 minutes an outing---and it would seem that Coach Williams would again utilize those two role players to take advantage of certain matchups in the paint, as well as specific game situations.
Simmons got just as many rebounds surprisingly as Hubert (34) this past season, while shooting 55 percent from the floor (second on the team, behind only Johnson), while Hubert made 46.7 percent of his shots and a dreadful 29.4 percent on free throws (5 of 17).
For Hubert, improving his free throw shooting is essential this offseason to increasing his playing time, for with the way UNC likes to feed its bigs and get to the free throw line, he's not helping anyone but the opponent by going to the line and hoisting bricks.
One of the more intriguing questions for the Tar Heels heading into next season is how Hicks will potentially emerge as a sophomore.
Hicks was arguably the most heralded of UNC's three freshmen this past year coming into Chapel Hill, though Meeks made a significantly more substantial impact as a rookie for Carolina.
Hicks averaged 7.3 minutes per game last season but rarely if ever seemed comfortable.
He was forced into playing more along the wing because of UNC's depth but now he'll get a chance to prove himself at the position where many feel he's better suited, the four.
Hicks, like Johnson, isn't very imposing physically, but he's extremely athletic and bouncy. He's ideally suited to run the floor and pick up transition and garbage baskets in the paint for the Tar Heels, while also playing solid defense.
It's impressive that he blocked 12 shots last year---as many as Hubert did---but he's got to cut down on his personal fouls, having picked up 35 last season (15 more than Simmons and 14 more than Hubert, despite playing just 60 more minutes total).
In final summation UNC looks to be fairly solid, at least on paper, at the point guard position despite the departure of McAdoo.
Johnson, as a rising junior, should feel ready to step into the starting lineup, and Hicks is capable of being a star if he continues to stay patient and use his God-given talents.
Hubert and Simmons are not superstars but they're capable, mature contributors, and everyone knows how Coach Williams feels about seniors. These are two guys who will find their way onto the court and provide key contributions in different ways with Hubert's shot blocking and Simmons' ability to make shots.
The development of Hicks in particular is going to be paramount as to just how far this group of UNC power forwards can come, because clearly Johnson can't be asked alone to handle the scoring load.
Neither Simmons nor Hubert can be expected to score more than occasionally, so Hicks simply must step up as a scorer if the UNC power forwards are to maximize their full potential.
Tar Heel Illustrated will publish Part Two of this series, featuring the UNC point guards, on Saturday.