A season that started with a significant number of preseason question marks has turned into something rather unexpected: what might be the deepest team in the ten-season Roy Williams era at Carolina.
This season was supposed to be about rebuilding, about replacing the four first round draft picks lost to the NBA and finding a way to speed the transition of a four-man freshman class. As Carolina prepares for tonight's visit from Wake Forest that will complete the first half of the 18-game ACC schedule, there are ten Tar Heels averaging at least 11 minutes per game. That figure doesn't include Jackson Simmons, who is averaging 14 minutes per game since breaking through in the Florida State game.
The current distribution of playing time is unlike any other team in the Williams era. The loaded 2007 squad had 10 players who averaged at least 10 minutes, but only eight who played as many as 11 minutes per game. The 2010 squad, which probably bears more resemblance to this one in terms of pure talent level, had 11 players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game (although Ed Davis missed the final 14 games with an injury), but only eight who played at least 11 minutes per game.
Under Williams, Carolina has been built around at least one player--and sometimes more--who can get a basket virtually anytime they want. First, it was Rashad McCants, Sean May and Raymond Felton. Then it was four years of Tyler Hansbrough. More recently, it's been Tyler Zeller and Harrison Barnes.
This year's team doesn't yet have that dominant scorer. It's most likely to be either James Michael McAdoo or Reggie Bullock, but on any given night it could also be P.J. Hairston, Dexter Strickland or (as against Virginia Tech) Marcus Paige. Eight different Tar Heels have already had multiple double-digit scoring efforts this year...but no one has done it in every game this year.
Fans tend to think of a "deep" team as one with loads of talent. The 1994 team, for example, that brought Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace off the bench (it's true!)--now that's a deep team. NBA lottery pick Marvin Williams never started a game for the 2005 national champions.
That's not necessarily the case this year, as the 2013 depth is a case of players who excel in certain areas--Brice Johnson is a scorer, Desmond Hubert is a defender, Jackson Simmons is a screener. That puts the challenge on Williams to deploy them appropriately and for the players involved to accentuate their strengths.
At a time when some teams are starting to narrow their rotations, the Carolina bench is expanding. Leslie McDonald came back from a six-day absence on Saturday and promptly played 25 minutes, struggling with his shot but playing solid defense on the nation's leading scorer, Erick Green. In fact, McDonald was part of a five-man group that played the entire final 6:03 of regulation against Virginia Tech. That quintet included McAdoo, Simmons, Paige and Bullock, and probably wouldn't have been anyone's preseason guess for the team the Tar Heels would put on the floor in the final minutes of a tight ACC game.
Part of the flexibility is due to necessity, unfortunately. The Tar Heels have again dealt with injuries this year, and haven't played with their full rotation since the ACC opener at Virginia on Jan. 6. Carolina has played 40 games since Dexter Strickland went down with a torn ACL at Virginia Tech last Jan. 19. Members of the regular rotation have missed a combined 51 games during that 40-game stretch.
That's likely to increase tonight. "I really don't see how P.J. can play," Roy Williams said Monday night on his radio show. Hairston is making progress in his recovery from a concussion but now is battling flu-like symptoms that sent him to the hospital on Monday. The news was better on James Michael McAdoo (back) and Desmond Hubert (illness). "James Michael was able to practice about half of practice (Monday)," Williams said. "Unless it flares up, I expect him to play...Desmond didn't feel great...but again, I would expect him to play."
That type of attrition has opened the door for the emergence of Simmons, who might be the most unlikely midseason success story in the past decade. Prior to the win at Florida State, Simmons had three DNPs in the previous four games. Now, suddenly, he's a player who is important enough to be on the floor-showing some savvy by safely playing with four fouls for the entire time-for 8:23 of the game's final 11:23 against the Hokies.
Wes Miller has been mentioned as a possible parallel for Simmons, but Miller was already playing nearly 20 minutes per game when he was inserted into the starting lineup at Florida State during the 2005-06 campaign.
As Williams is fond of saying, it's the players who decide who plays meaningful minutes. Simmons has illustrated it perfectly: he received one opportunity, made himself essential, and hasn't been out of the rotation since.
"He's a guy that for the most part understands his limitations and plays to his strengths and stays away from his weaknesses," Williams said Monday night. "That is a very, very bright basketball player.
"In the preseason, I told him he should never fail to box out, because he can control that. He should never fail to stand in and take a charge or dive on the floor for a loose ball. Jackson is doing some nice things. There are going to be some games where there's a spot for him and there will be other games that because of the kind of game it is, there may not be as big a spot for him."
Given the way the Tar Heel rotation has gone so far, even if Simmons doesn't have as big a role in a certain game, there will be someone else on the bench eager to fill his spot.