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UNC 2013-14 Position Previews: Power Forward

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UNC lacked depth in the post this season, but looks to be absolutely stacked going into next year. That leaves us wondering who will get the lion's share of minutes off the bench, and what will it take for James Michael McAdoo to have a bounce-back year?

Streeter Lecka

This is our fourth in a series of previews where our UNC contingent (Zeke & Will) looks ahead to next year's Tar Heel squad. Click on the links to read our first three installments on next year's point guards, next year's shooting guards and next year's small forwards.

Will: With two McDonald's All-Americans (McAdoo and Hicks) playing off or in support of each other, and our most productive non-McAdoo big man from a year ago (Johnson) in reserve, power forward should be a strong suit for us this season. The problem is, the strength of our power forwards depends, to a large extent, on the strength--or at least the presence--of our centers.

Despite being our leading rebounder (7.3 rpg) and second-leading scorer (14.4 ppg), most assessments of McAdoo's sophomore season (including, probably, his own) ranged from mediocre to disappointing. Of course, this is largely due to the lack of even a semblance of a post threat to complement him, which forced him to either play out of position at the five or force a post game that really isn't his for most of the season. Give us Serge Zwikker, and McAdoo becomes twice as effective. Regardless, McAdoo was a second-team All-ACC performer last year. He was projected as a mid-to-late first-rounder in this year's NBA Draft, and his decision to return for his junior season can only mean he intends to up that draft status with his play in the upcoming season. Whether he accomplishes that or not, you have to love the extra incentive.

Meanwhile, Roy has added another slight-but-athletic four-man to his ranks in 6-8, 210-pound Isaiah Hicks. Following Marvin Williams, Brandon Wright, Ed Davis, John Henson, and McAdoo, Hicks is the latest in a long line of characteristically aerodynamic Roy Williams power forwards. If Joel James or the incoming Kennedy Meeks shows some mettle in the post, Hicks may actually be coming off the bench. But he's got game-changing talent, and while it might seem a step backwards to return McAdoo to the five, a Paige/McDonald/Hairston/Hicks/McAdoo lineup could be a fun thing to watch. Hicks may actually have enough talent and motivation underneath to at least ease some of the post burden that buried McAdoo last season. Maybe that's enough. Anyone who posts 34 points, 30 boards, and 7 blocks to win their high school state championship has to have some inside game. Speaking of sleek power forwards, the offensive-minded Brice Johnson (5.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 10.6 mpg) will be ready to pop off the bench for us when needed. But with a slew of big men to contend with (7 of our current 12 spots in the rotation go to centers or power forwards), it's hard to see how he'll improve his 10 mpg from a season ago. Still, Johnson was one of only four Heels to play in all 36 games last year (McAdoo, Strickland, Hubert), so he seems to be a favored commodity.

Ready to battle Johnson for some of those minutes is Jackson Simmons, who proved to be one of the steadiest hands for us at times this past season. He had the lowest turnover-per-minute rate on the team (.0256--only 6 turnovers in 234 minutes) and the highest field goal percentage of anyone attempting more than two shots on the year (65.8%, 25-for-38), including a ridiculous 81% from the field during conference play (17-for-21). I'm guessing there's not a better fourth-string power forward in the nation.

Zeke: I think your assessment of the need to have someone in the middle step up this year is right on: in fact, Roy Williams even confirmed as much this offseason already. And I don't think that means playing McAdoo at the 5: we found out from the smallball era that he struggled quite a bit in that scenario, and yes I realize he was having to go against bigger guys a lot of nights or getting boxed out by multiple players so his rebounding totals suffered some, but even before Roy went small I wasn't especially impressed with McAdoo's ability on the glass, and his quickness is of much more benefit to Carolina when he can hang around outside the paint both on offense and defense. I'm less bullish on him in general than you are I think - but I struggle rooting for volume shooters in general. He smells a little bit like the "potential never quite materialized into what we thought it could have been" type of guy that UNC has been fortunate not to have too many of - here's how Eamonn Brennan of ESPN summed up his sophomore season:

"Fact is, McAdoo had kind of a rough year. His counting numbers (14.4 points and 7.3 rebounds per game) look solid, but he shot just 44.7 percent from the field, turned it over on 18.2 percent of his possessions, grabbed just 8.5 percent of available offensive rebounds, and finished with a 91.3 offensive rating. It was pretty ugly stuff. "

The turnovers and shooting percentage are what kills me. If he gives us those identical numbers on points and boards next year but boosts his shooting percentage and cuts his turnovers, I'll be ecstatic. But right now, I'm a little skeptical.
One guy that I am overly bullish on, however, is Isaiah Hicks. When I saw that he pulled 30 boards in a state championship game, I went into full man-crush mode already. I am predicting an irrationally big year from him just based on the fact that he both runs the floor and crashes the boards, which Roy absolutely loves as a coach, so I think earns him more minutes out of the gate. Not to mention he has some pretty great hops and I think he's going to make it on our year-end highlight reel a handful of times. I have not been this giddy about an incoming freshman in a while - let's hope he doesn't disappoint.

Concerning Johnson and Simmons, I actually could see Brice getting some burn at the 5 off the bench because he's probably not in danger of going up against a bigger guy when most opponents' second unit is on the floor. He's clearly got offensive skill but he's gotta buckle down a little bit more on defense and with rebounding to earn himself more than those 10 minutes. I imagine with as many bigs as UNC will have at its disposal next year it's going to be a bit of a roulette game every time Carolina plays seeing how the minutes pan out. That can be good or bad - I honestly feel a little bad for Simmons and someone like Desmond Hubert, who you want to love because they're energy and hustle guys but you can tell just aren't quite talented enough to earn big minutes. They'll be fantastic practice players for Carolina battling the bigs in front of them every day, and I love the fact that our first and second stringers get to bang with guys that can actually challenge them and make them work. I imagine there are going to be some epic battles in practices next year with all the post talent at Chapel Hill.

Will: Yeah, McAdoo's weakness (to the extent that it's a weakness) is that he struggles being the lead guy (which results in what Roy describes as "playing too fast" or "trying too hard"). That's not necessarily a bad thing (though it frustrates guys like Brennan who await and expect superstars), it might just be part of his constitution. But it becomes a bad thing when you don't have other guys that can step into that lead spot. I think McAdoo excels when he's playing off or in support of his teammates rather than being the go-to guy. To the extent that Paige, Hairston, and one of our post guys continue to step forward and ease some of that pressure, McAdoo's efficacy will likewise increase. Not that we won't need big plays and big contributions from him this year, but right now he feels like he has to make every big play and devotees of "potential" expect him to (every player's potential is greater than his actuality, after all). He really just needs to quit thinking and play ball, and allow the chips to fall where they may.