Late Night Preview: The Scrimmage

The temptation definitely exists to read too much into the annual scrimmage that concludes the season-opening “Late Night With Roy” event. Well, in the interest of previewing the exhibition, let's succumb to that temptation just for a moment.

While judging any team on an intra-squad scrimmage is nonsensical — given the identity of the "opponent" — I'm supremely interested in three developments that will begin to unfold at Late Night.

Long Range Confidence

First, what's the temperature gauge on the team's three-point shooting? Most everyone acknowledges that perimeter firepower remains the Tar Heels' primary question mark, and at least one other player besides Marcus Paige will need to knock down a respectable percentage from long-range in order to bring balance to the offense.

Nate Britt's switch from left-handed to right-handed shooting is an oddity that's very rarely observed at the college level, but might it help? I watched Britt extensively in high school and noted him as a talented right (off-)handed finisher. Whether that comfort extends to 22 feet remains to be seen, but even a casual game scenario at Late Night will offer a glimpse of what's to come.

It seems unlikely to me that J.P. Tokoto will become a three-point shooting mainstay, but perhaps he'll become more willing to shoot this season and raise his percentage. He altered his form some from his freshman season to his sophomore campaign, so I'm curious if he has tweaked that form even further heading into his upperclassman years.

I'll cover the freshmen more extensively below, but at the minimum jumbo wing Justin Jackson could provide immediate jump shooting help. He possesses confidence, nice form and great size for the perimeter to fire away over closing defenders.

Others such as Joel Berry, Theo Pinson or Stilman White also could become factors, but I think it's more likely that one of the three players cited above will have the best chance to bolster the club's marksmanship.

Long-range shooting may not be very good in a loosy-goosy scrimmage featuring lots of quick, bad shots, but the attempts will be noteworthy in terms of role assimilation. We'll at least get a taste of which players view themselves as a potential three-point shooting sidekick to Paige.

Fermenting Frontcourt

Moving on, Roy Williams has said that he views interior improvement as a defining quality for this team. That said, then, I'm curious to see if Brice Johnson is ready to step into a leadership, alpha scoring role. Of all the squad's big men, he possesses the most classically Carolina set of scoring tools.

His turnaround jump shot always has been a weapon, and now he's much stronger and should be able to make a more consistent impact both offensively and defensively.

Sophomore Isaiah Hicks also shows signs of coming into his own. Hicks had a non-descript freshman campaign in which he was a deep reserve behind Johnson and starter James Michael McAdoo. This season, he projects to play big minutes as Johnson's likely backup while also potentially sharing time with Johnson up front as well.

Hicks is a better player than he showed last season, and I think that will become easily apparent at Late Night. His body and confidence already looked changed during this summer's Bahamas exhibitions, but I expect his improvement to become even clearer when fans put eyes on him in person during the scrimmage. Hicks must become more than frontcourt filler if the Heels are going to maintain a potent interior attack.

And then there's Kennedy Meeks, whose body speaks to the fact that less is more. He arrived in Chapel Hill weighing in excess of 300 pounds last year, but now he's listed at a trim, sinewy 270 and claims to be even below that number. Just the visual difference from last spring to this fall will catch everyone's attention immediately, and the scrimmage itself should reveal a far more mobile performer.

One thing the scrimmage won't tell us is to what extent Meeks's stamina has improved. He labored at times last year, but this season the coaching staff will ask him to play heavy minutes without suffering a severe drop-off in production.

Noob Patrol

My final point of interest will pertain to the freshmen. More than the other guys on the squad, these guys will experience everything for the first time. This will be their debut live action before a true Smith Center crowd, and for that reason I don't anticipate much in terms of effectiveness at the scrimmage. Nerves are a thing even for McDonald's All-Americans, so production will be less significant to me than style.

When Williams says he believes his three newcomers are "basketball players," he clearly expects them to slot into the roster without excessive difficulty. That said, they don't have time to develop slowly because all three of them will need to contribute.

That's particularly true for wings Jackson and Pinson. I'm very much looking forward to observing their comfort level interacting with their teammates and coaches, not to mention their assertiveness at the scrimmage while on the big UNC stage for the first time.

Given that Tokoto is unlikely to become a primary halfcourt scorer, either Jackson or Pinson is likely to start and be asked to generate offense. Will Jackson's darting, off-balance shots carry the day, or will Pinson's superior quickness and leaping ability give him the edge?

Then there's Berry, the point guard who will compete with Nate Britt for playing time behind and alongside Paige. While his scoring opportunities may be limited this season compared with Jackson and Pinson, Williams has highlighted Berry as a talented outside shooter while also noting that Pinson has struggled with his jump shot.

If that's true, and keeping in mind that Pinson easily outshot Berry on the high school circuit last year, perhaps Berry is more ready to step into the rotation than I'd expected having observed him closely in the prep ranks. Again, I'm not going to read much into shooting accuracy at the scrimmage and especially with the freshmen, but let's see what kind of shots they take or if they pass up open looks.

***

I guess this space is as good as any other to mention the scrimmage's other most visible component: a head coach weary after a long offseason and eager to command a potentially elite team. Let the (not really that important but interesting anyway) game begin.


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