Postcard from North Carolina (Cont.)
Mr. Progress: John Henson. Henson said that he hopes when people watch him this season, they'll say, "That's one of the biggest three-year improvements I've seen from a player in a long time." Whereas his sophomore year was about finding his natural position -- at power forward, where he made a significant defensive impact after struggling on the perimeter as a freshman -- his junior year seems to be about solidifying himself and expanding his offensive game. Henson still looks like a skinny dude, and seeing him on the same floor as 'Sheed reminds you just how far Henson has to go, physically, to be an NBA power forward. But he has filled out to a respectable 220 pounds after another offseason of eating and training, and this should help him hold his own in 1-on-1 situations in the post.
"John doesn't get pushed around any more," said Williams. "He was significantly stronger his sophomore year from what he was as a freshman, and I really think that he's significantly stronger this year than he was as a sophomore." (Williams postulates that Henson led the country in the embarrassing stat of "dunks blocked" as a freshman, but can only remember that happening once last season, against Wake's Ty Walker.)
Henson -- who has struggled with free throws and jumpers in the past -- also hopes to show off a mid-range shot that he believes he's honed enough to "keep defenses honest." I saw proof of this when he effortlessly banked in an angled 10-footer, Tim Duncan-style, in the scrimmage, but Williams also stopped play after Henson nearly air-balled a shot from farther out on the wing.
"There's nothing wrong with John shooting the ball," Williams said to the team.
"But John, was that a good shot?" (Henson shrugs.)
"And what's a better shot?"
Williams then pointed to an unguarded Barnes in the corner, about 10 feet away. The coaches are OK with Henson shooting, just from closer in -- and as long as it's not at the expense of an open Barnes three.
X-Factor: The emergence of shooters. As a whole, Carolina was not a good three-point shooting team last season, ranking 248th in the country at 32.8 percent. It was the worst long-range team in ACC play (29.2 percent) and it just lost its most efficient option, Leslie McDonald (38.1 percent), to a knee injury. To take the next step from a good to great team, the Tar Heels need to be more proficient on the perimeter. Part of it is Barnes shooting higher than the 34.4 percent he did as a freshman, and defensive stopper Dexter Strickland developing some semblance of a shot; he attempted just 32 threes, making eight, despite being the team's starter at two-guard. What would really help, though, is if UNC had a reliable gunner off the bench -- either sophomore Reggie Bullock, who struggled with injuries last season and made just 29.6 percent of his threes despite a rep as a feared shooter; or freshman P.J. Hairston, who arrived with an even bigger rep as a long-range shooter. I didn't get to see Hairston practice on Monday because he was attending a grandfather's funeral, but my sense is that he could surpass Bullock in the rotation if he proves to be a much higher-percentage marksman.
The Tar Heels aren't going to mess with the starting lineup that got them to within a couple of defensive stops of the Final Four. Kendall Marshall has the best court vision of any point guard in the country, and it more than makes up for his lack of Ty Lawson-or Ray Felton-level quickness. Strickland earns his minutes at the two by guarding the opponent's best perimeter player. Barnes could win the Wooden and Naismith Awards, and Henson and Zeller should join him in the NBA Lottery next year. Freshman power forward James Michael McAdoo is likely to be the first one off the bench to relieve whichever big picks up an early foul; he's not ready to dominate, but he would be a starter for 98 percent of D-I teams. Bullock and Hairston will battle for first-guard-off-the-pine honors, but there will still be backcourt minutes left for senior role player Justin Watts, too. Strickland will serve as the backup point guard for the eight-or-so minutes Marshall is off the floor, with freshman Stillman White as an emergency option in case of injury.
Williams doesn't see this season as being analogous to 2009, the last time he had a preseason No. 1 team at North Carolina. "In 2009, I thought we were probably at a different level than everyone else, and I don't see that this time around," he said. "There are so many big-time teams this year." But there is a difference between these Tar Heels and the rest of the field. They are more balanced than Ohio State and better on defense than Duke. Kentucky may have as many future pros, but UNC has four experienced future pros in its starting lineup, and they all stayed in Chapel Hill to chase a national championship. I don't see anyone stopping them.