Inside Carolina Magazine
INTERVIEWER: Greg Barnes
PHOTOS: Jim Hawkins
oy Williams sits down with Inside Carolina following a summer full of recruiting and not enough golf. The 10th-year UNC head coach is sporting a quasi-buzz cut on this random Monday morning, noting before the audio recorder turns on that he is heading over to Navy Fields for football practice immediately after the interview.
With only one returning starter from last season’s Elite Eight squad, Williams is candid in acknowledging the high quantity of unknowns related to this team, as well as breaking down the ability of his roster. There is talent available, albeit raw, and Williams exudes a cautious optimism about molding this team week-by-week and month-by-month to reach a potential that seems a lengthy distance away as the first practice approaches.
We touched on this over the summer, but a new NCAA rule allowed you to work with your team for a handful of hours in June and July. In that short period of time, what did you see out of your freshman class?
Well, we got together four times. We worked for an hour and 15 minutes as a whole group and then the other 45 minutes we got Hubert [Davis] to do an individual shooting workout with each one of them for those four weeks. So we had them on the court for an hour and 15 minutes four different times. The biggest thing is how big a shock the pace of the game was to them—in their mind, the frenetic pace of the game, the constant push to do everything as hard as they could, as fast as they could. So I guess it was intensity level and the pace were the two things that were a big shock, and that’s their feedback to me.
What I saw from them? Marcus [Paige] really did some good things and yet the pace of the game is in the point guard’s hands and so it’s a bigger change for him than probably anybody else. Not that they didn’t run the ball in high school, because they did, but it’s a completely different thing. But he handled it well. I think the four sessions together might be more of a benefit to him than to any of the other guys because the ball is going to be in his hands, so he’s got to start thinking about that immediately.
J.P. [Tokoto] sprained his ankle in the summer league, Jerry [Stackhouse’s] Pro-Am thing over in Durham, so he missed the last two practices and that’s really a big blow to him. But he showed that he’s got a chance to be a big-time rebounder, particularly on the offensive board, and defensively he’s got a chance. And he is just off-the-charts athletically.
Brice [Johnson] would just surprise you. He’s going along and not doing anything and then all of sudden someone just does something that jumps out, and it’s him. Then four or five plays later, somebody else makes a big-time play that jumps out at you and it’s him again. So the thing that we’re talking to him about is that it’s got to be a consistency of that intense effort, not just a consistency of running up and down the court, but a consistency of intense effort when he’s playing. He does have an ability to do some things differently than other people with the quickness of his jumping ability and his ability to make plays that a lot of guys can’t make. It’s just that you can’t make a play and then take a half hour off and then make another great play.
And then Joel [James] is probably second only to Marcus, and in some ways even more so than Marcus, because practice is a huge difference to him. We’re pushing him to run like crazy and we’re throwing him the ball. He’s never had that. We’re going to depend on him to get better and better and better. By doing that, it’s going to be something that’s really beneficial to him and needless to say, beneficial to us. What I did with him was give him the saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day. He’s got to understand that you’ve got to do everything that you possibly can, but you can’t snap your fingers and be there. He’s not going to be Willis Reed tomorrow. But he has such a wonderful attitude about the whole thing. It helped us as a staff know a heck of a lot more about them and it helped them know a heck of a lot more about how we want to play.
Now, everybody else in the country got those same benefits. It might be more important this year to us because of the youth of our team. And then the other thing about the practices, and I know you just asked about the four, but Dexter [Strickland] still didn’t practice. Reggie [Bullock] had some knee problems, so we held him out three of the last four—he’s fine now—and then Leslie was able to do all of them, but had a little bit of overload because he just hadn’t done it in a while. But we felt like we got quite a bit out of it.
James Michael McAdoo is your lone proven commodity returning in the post and his success only materialized during the final three weeks of the season. You’ve commented on the two freshmen post players, but how did Desmond Hubert look during those summer practice sessions?
“I still envision that we’re really going to run the ball.”
James Michael missed one of the sessions himself. He had food poisoning and lost about 11 pounds in three days or something like that, so he missed a session and a week’s worth of individual workouts with Hubert and a week’s worth of weight work. When you lose 10 or 11 pounds in a two or three-day period, you’re sick. But Desmond is 30 pounds heavier than he was last summer and it is very good weight. He’s much more confident defensively and rebounding-wise. Now we’ve got to get him more confident on the offensive end. He has a couple of moves that he can make. He needs to condense his game to where he only makes those moves right now and not try to do things that he can’t do. But I think he can do that. It’s something as a staff that we have to convince him that’s what he has to do. I think if we can do that, then he’ll gain some confidence from it and everything will be a lot better. Rebounding and defensive-wise, he was much more confident in what he was doing.
Do you have a vision for how you’re going to run this team, in terms of lineups and strengths and weaknesses? Or is that something that will only come after several weeks of practice?
I purposefully try not to put lineups together before the second or third week of practice. The staff will say, ‘What do you think about this lineup?” and I won’t even talk about it. I want the guys’ play on the court this fall to decide what happens, not what I think they can do or what they’ve done in the past. I want them to earn it, and to me, that’s a more legitimate way of doing it. I still envision that we’re really going to run the ball. We’re probably going to shoot more 3-point shots because we have more guys who I still think can do that, who didn’t do it as well last year. I looked up some [stats] about last year’s team. We were 270th in 3-point field goals per game and 197th in 3-point field goal percentage. We were also 210th in free throw percentage. That’s out of 338 schools, so those are really bad. And yet, on the good side, we were fifth in win-loss percentage—which, of course, that’s the best stat—we were third in scoring offense, fourth in scoring margin, first in rebound margin, fourth in assists per game, fourth in assist-error ratio, eighth in blocked shots per game and eighth in fewest personal fouls committed per game. So we had eight categories where we were in the top-10.
To me, another one that is extremely important is our defensive field goal percentage and we were 23rd out of 338 schools. I always say rebound margin and defensive field goal percentage are the things that are more conducive to leading to wins, so those are the things that we’ve emphasized. I looked at those and said, well, with the win-loss percentage we lost a lot of players, so you’ve got to be concerned about that. We lost a lot of scoring. Rebounding margin, we lost John [Henson] and [Tyler Zeller]—it’s hard to get rebounds with those two guys in there. Assists and assist-error ratio, Kendall Marshall. Blocked shots, John and ‘Z’ again. So we don’t have any of those parts that made us be so good in those facets of the game, but we also do have a lot of parts that should help us a heck of a lot in the other things. Leslie was our best 3-point field goal percentage shooter and he didn’t play. We’ve got Leslie and now we’ve got Reggie a year older, P.J. [Hairston] hopefully a year older—they usually make drastic jumps from freshmen to sophomores—so I think that part will go up. Free throw percentage, John was struggling at the free throw line, but we still have Desmond. I think you look at one team and see why they were successful and I think we can look and say we rebounded the ball and also defended pretty well around the basket. We shared the ball. Now, can we do those same kinds of things with this team? What did we do poorly last year and we can we do those better?
So in evaluating one team to the next team, what I do is continually evaluate to make sure what I’m emphasizing is a good reason for being successful and then try to picture what we can do with this team. It does, in my opinion, get into those two or three weeks of practice before you really know. We’re not going to block as many shots because John was such an unbelievable shot blocker, but I believe we’ll still be a pretty good shot-blocking team. Rebounding, losing those two guys is tremendous, so we have to emphasize that to this team. We have to get more rebounding from our wings, because we didn’t get enough rebounding from our wings. You can say, well, John and ‘Z’ were getting all of the rebounds, so you didn’t need it. Well, this year we’re going to need them to do that. So my vision or my dream—that’s how I prefer to say it—is that we’ve got a chance to be a better 3-point shooting team, but we still have to get to the free throw line and get the other team in foul trouble. We have to establish some kind of inside game. Is that going to be James Michael? Is that going to be Reggie and P.J. posting their guys up? What is it going to be?
You obviously believe strongly in your system, and there are more than 600 wins to support that approach, but with a frontcourt whose standout isn't a back to the basket player and with all the other post players incredibly inexperienced (and perhaps not ready for primetime), are you willing to consider making significant changes to the offensive system to take advantage of the team's abundance of wings?
We’ve already done it. Look at the championship run in ’09. Who was the focal point of the offense as we went down the stretch that year?
Lawson, [Wayne] Ellington and Danny Green. Now, they were exceptional. But in 2008, it was Tyler Hansbrough and we needed some help from some other guys. In ’09, we still emphasized Tyler, but he took fewer shots and scored [fewer] points than all three of those guys down the stretch a lot of times. I think we did at that time realize, ‘Okay, this is perfect—we have a great inside scorer but let’s not lose Ty’s ability to penetrate, let’s not lose Ty’s ability to penetrate and pitch to Wayne and Danny and let them shoot the ball.’ I don’t have the stats, but that was probably at least one of the best 3-point shooting teams because those guys could make shots against difficult opponents. Sometimes you will have a team that shoots threes that looks pretty good, but they get a lot of them against St. Mary’s Sisters of the Poor. That was probably our best 3-point shooting team. Tyler even made two threes in the last home game against Duke.
So to answer your question, we have already done that a little bit. I still think you have to have an inside game, but you can have an inside game by penetrating to the basket or by posting a guy up. But we do believe we have to have an inside game. When I first got to Kansas, we had no big men that could score. I told one of our big guys the only time he could shoot the ball was if he got an offensive rebound and was facing just one guy. If he was in a crowd, he couldn’t even shoot it then. We haven’t gotten down to that, by any means. I do believe that what we have to do is work with Joel, for example, now and know that he’s going to be better in November. Then work with him in November and know that he’s going to be a better inside scorer by January and then work with him in January and know that he’s going to be better by April. We’ve got to get Desmond better; we’ve got to get Brice better; we’ve got to get James Michael better. But if we had to play a game today for something that was really important, we would not have the same type of emphasis of a back-to-the-basket post player as we’ve had in the past because we don’t have that. That’s just a fact and that’s what it is.
Let’s return to Marcus for a moment. This offense requires a lot from its point guards. Does he have the talent and ability to play a lot as a freshman, whether it be as a starter or a backup?
“We can’t afford for a guy to have a bad year. We can’t afford to have a guy not listen.”
I think he does. I really think he’s got a chance to be a special player. You never can tell how a freshman is going to react until you put him out there, but I have a tremendous amount of confidence that he’ll react very well. Ty Lawson—you look at Ty’s stats for three years and they’re off the charts, but I remember his second college game having five or six turnovers in the first half down in Charlotte against Winthrop. It just takes a little while and we have to understand that… It’s a difficult spot to throw people in, but I do think Marcus is good enough to do that.
Is the plan to keep Dexter at point guard full-time?
No. That plan has never been in my mind because Dexter is not a point guard. My thing is to try to get Dexter to be a more efficient point guard, but he’s not a point guard. Never has been. It’s hard to throw a guy in during his senior year and say, ‘Okay, you’re going to be a point guard.’ Last year, I thought the plan was really working well. His assist-error ratio was so much better, his field goal percentage was better and then he got hurt. But if he had been able to play that whole second half of the season, I would have probably thought of him as more of a legitimate point guard than I do now. Right now I’m thinking of him as a part-time point guard. But when you’re thinking about a guy coming off ACL surgery, you shouldn’t think about anything. You should just practice and see what he can do and then go from there.
The last time UNC lost a huge percentage of its key players was after 2009, and that team obviously struggled. Injuries played a significant role in that team’s identity crisis, but Dexter and Leslie also pointed to a lack of chemistry as their biggest takeaway from that season and as something they plan to make sure isn't an issue this season. Do you agree with their assessment? Were there lessons that you took away from 2009-10 that can be applied to this coming season?
Well, I hope there are lessons from it, because we still have some people involved that have to understand it. I wouldn’t necessarily put it quite as strongly as they did, but that’s okay, I have no problem with them saying that. We got in a situation where we were never settled, and it was more that the injuries never allowed us to get settled, to me, than it was any clique problem in the locker room. I think I’m right on this, but I think Tyler Zeller and Ed Davis played one conference game together that season. ‘Z’ was hurt early, Ed was hurt late. Deon [Thompson] never knew who he was going to be in there with. We had guys trying to play out of position. We had the experiment with John trying to play on the perimeter. We had the experiment trying to play Dexter at the point. We had one of the Wear [twins] trying to play at the 3-spot. It was so unsettled. I’ve never had a team that went through that number of guys missing that number of games. So to me the injury problem was the biggest factor, but that’s also an excuse because you’ve still got guys who have got to play. But there is no doubt that Deon and Marcus [Ginyard] were our two seniors. Marcus was hurt and Deon was going from the fifth option to now being asked to be the main option. Both of those guys are great youngsters, but they’re also looking around and saying, ‘Okay, what’s my future going to be?’ Sometimes when you get to be seniors that gets to be a hindrance to your own play, so I can see why the freshmen guys are saying that, because it wasn’t… Again, Marcus and Deon are great kids, but neither one of those guys stepped up and put their arms around those guys and said, ‘We’re going to be okay. You just follow and do what I do.’ That’s what David Noel did. And so there wasn’t that one guy in 2010 that did what David Noel did in 2006.
P.J. told me this summer that Hubert Davis was working with him on shooting more up and down because of his tendency to kick his leg out. Was that part of his struggle during the second half of last season?
I’ve been harping on him ever since he got here about it. You have to be on balance. And I told Hubert when he got here… The reason for getting Hubert to work with the guys is to let them get a chance to know Hubert more and to let Hubert get to know them more. And the guy who is doing it—if I’m getting this right—is the third-best career 3-point percentage shooter in NBA history. Roy Williams never made a shot. And P.J. Hairston, the first day, I asked, ‘Why is your right leg flying out like that? You have to have balance.’ And I said that for 98 practices or however many we had. Now it’s coming from a fresh voice, it’s coming from one of the best shooters in NBA history, so all of those help, but it’s also P.J. maturing a little bit and listening. That’s something that everybody has to do.
For us to be really successful this year, we’ve got to stay healthy and everybody’s got to play as close to their potential as they possibly can. We can’t afford for a guy to have a bad year. We can’t afford to have a guy not listen. The good thing is that I’ve mellowed out so much because in the old days that would have really ticked me off. I would have said, ‘Why in the crap would you believe him? Hell, I started telling you that the first day of frickin’ practice.’ But I’ve mellowed a little bit, so I’m all right there. But that’s what they’ve got to do. They’ve got to mature and listen and do what the crap they’re told to do. And if they do that, they’re going to find out that they’re going to be a hell of a lot better off. That’s an easy thing for me to say… Maybe I haven’t mellowed as much as I thought I had.