As North Carolina was steamrolling the Bahamas All-Stars in Nassau two months ago, a slimmer Graves was hustling and defending as if his scholarship depended on it. Never mind the fact that the senior was coming off the bench while freshman phenom Harrison Barnes started at the 3-spot – Graves was determined to set the proper example for his younger teammates in his final year as a Tar Heel.
Inside Carolina spoke with Graves immediately following that 123-86 victory about his decision to embrace the leadership role that was lacking at times in ’09-’10.
“Yeah, I just love being a part of Carolina basketball and the tradition,” Graves said. ‘I’m happy to be here. It’s a dream come true and I just want to give it my all. I’ve got one year left.”
There was no doubt during the offseason who the leader of this North Carolina program would be during the ’10-’11 campaign.
“He was a senior leader to perfection,” junior center Tyler Zeller told reporters during UNC’s Media Day on Thursday. “He was working harder, getting up shots and he was doing a great job with everything he was doing.”
But as it turns out, Graves ultimately did the exact opposite of what a great leader should do, letting his teammates and coaches down by failing to comply with team rules. The lifelong Carolina fan was dismissed from the team on Oct. 7.
While Graves’s streaky outside shooting and ability to sub in on the blocks were considered needed additions to this season’s Tar Heel edition, it was his leadership that many around the program were counting on to quiet the harsh waves of ’09-’10 and provide the jovial impersonation of David Noel that Marcus Ginyard struggled to replicate.
Now the Tar Heels will have to find a backup plan in that leadership, but that’s no easy task – it’s one thing to substitute a player off the bench, but the nuances and trust involved with leadership are built over months, not days.
“It’s unfortunate what happened to Will – that it happened – but the loss of any player to any team means that the rest of the team is going to have to step up and come together,” Larry Drew II said. “Me, Zeller and Justin [Watts], who have been here the longest, we have the most experience so naturally we should be the ones to step up.”
Sophomore guard Leslie McDonald echoed Drew’s sentiments, saying that Graves’s leadership loss was “a major blow to the North Carolina basketball team, but bad things come into this world and you’ve got to keep pushing on.”
The exhibition game against Barton is three weeks away, but Zeller believes someone will emerge in that role before the ball is tipped on Nov. 5.
“I think it’s something that is going to take place in the first two weeks,” Zeller said. “I’ve been in charge of organizing pick-up and stuff, but at the same time, an on-the-court leader is totally different than that. I feel like that on the court it may not even be one person – we may all just come together and all be are own leaders. So I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I think in the first two weeks we’ll know.”
North Carolina’s roster now consists of three true upperclassmen in juniors Drew, Zeller and Justin Watts, while Alabama transfer Justin Knox is a senior eligibility-wise but a rookie to this program. One significant X-factor in the search for leadership carries the banner as the nation’s No. 1-ranked incoming freshman – Harrison Barnes.
As physically talented as the 6-foot-8 wing is, head coach Roy Williams spent more time on Thursday talking about the Ames, Iowa product’s mental attributes and the Tyler Hansbrough-like qualities he will bring to the program.
Williams told Inside Carolina in August that the primary difference in Hansbrough and Barnes is that the former would never call somebody to join him at the gym or in the weight room. Hansbrough essentially dragged people along with him because they didn’t want to get left behind. Harrison’s method is a little more logical in approach, actually asking his teammates to join him as he did various times throughout the summer.
Despite his dismissal, Graves is still making his presence felt around the program. Prior to UNC’s conditioning test earlier this week, the Greensboro, N.C. native offered words of encouragement to his teammates and instructed them to keep striving for success through victory.
But his commendable efforts will always end on the outskirts of the basketball court. It’s now up to one of his former teammates to step into his sizeable shoes.