It was hard to mistake the big kid in the Tar Heel uniform wearing No. 0 during UNC’s photo shoot on Thursday afternoon. Joel James, standing 6-foot-10 and currently weighing 273 pounds, elicited some laughter during his session when a photographer asked him to dribble a basketball.
“I’m not a dribbler.”
Maybe not, but he is UNC’s lone brute in the post. After dropping 53 pounds to get down to 262, James has since packed on 11 pounds while watching his body fat percentage drop.
“Joel’s just big, honestly, that’s all I can say,” sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo said. “He’s an enforcer. I think the one thing that he has to work on is just being consistent and knowing that he’s 6-10, 280, I think, people are going to be afraid of him right off the bat… The refs are going to try to go after him, other teams are going to try to go after him, so he just really has to work on channeling that inner hope.”
Junior wing Reggie Bullock told reporters that James is “definitely” ready to play a significant role.
“He can run the floor well,” Bullock said. “He’s got a nice soft touch around the basket. He’s definitely ACC material.”
Sophomore guard P.J. Hairston described James as a “hulk down low” and added that the West Palm Beach, Fla. product is “probably the strongest freshman I’ve seen.”
Most importantly, sophomore forward Desmond Hubert said that James improves every time he steps on the court.
“He’s just a marvelous kid, a funny kid who has no idea how big and strong he is,” head coach Roy Williams said. “[He] didn’t even really start playing until his sophomore year. He’s had less basketball instruction than maybe any player I’ve ever coached.”
Fellow freshman Marcus Paige instantly became a household name on Thursday when Williams announced the Marion, Iowa product would likely start at point guard.
“He’s a very good player,” senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “He has a lot of knowledge of the game. I call him ‘Mr. Smooth.’ His game is real smooth, plays with a lot of poise. I think he’s going to be a great fit for our team.”
Hairston pointed to Paige’s athleticism as being a surprise upon his arrival in Chapel Hill.
“No one knew how athletic Marcus was when he first got here,” Hairston said. “He comes in dunking, getting put-back dunks and all sorts of things.”
Speaking of dunking, several UNC veterans couldn’t help but to laugh when talking about rookie wing J.P. Tokoto.
“He’s the highest-jumping person I’ve ever played with,” Bullock said, noting Tokoto’s 44-inch vertical leap.
Throughout Bullock’s life of AAU ball, camps and college, Harrison Barnes and Justin Watts had been the highest leapers that he had seen. Tokoto, however, is “way over them,” according to Bullock.
There’s more to Tokoto’s potential than just high-flying antics, though.
“He can be a big-time defender,” Bullock said. “A lot of people believe that I can play defense, [but] once he locks in and actually plays defense, he’s so long that anything that’s low he can just swipe it out. He’s very athletic and he can get a lot of rebounds.”
The most overlooked piece of the 2012 recruiting class is forward Brice Johnson, who checks in at 6-foot-9, 187 pounds. The media blitz on Thursday didn’t seem to phase him, however, as he peered over reporters’ heads to glare at McAdoo during the sophomore’s interview session.
Williams told Inside Carolina Magazine recently that Johnson had shown flashes of potential during the allotted summer practices, but that the coaching staff had stressed consistency with the Orangeburg, S.C. product.
“Brice has really started to work hard,” Hubert said. “He’s got a nice offensive game. You can see his skill offensively. He’s a good rebounder; he’s athletic.”
Although the freshman quartet was unable to talk to reporters on Thursday, you can go ahead and pencil in interview sessions following the season opener against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 9. Their rapid development as a group will be a determining factor in how North Carolina fares in ACC play starting in January.
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