In 2006, Tyler Hansbrough, Bobby Frasor, Danny Green and Marcus Ginyard were forced into early playing time due to the core pieces of North Carolina's 2005 championship team either graduating or moving on to the NBA ranks. A similar situation could have occurred for this current group of freshmen, but the National Player of the Year decided to return to school for his senior year shortly after the Final Four loss to Kansas, and three other Tar Heels withdrew their names from the NBA Draft in the final hours before the deadline.
Not only did those decisions cement North Carolina as the overwhelming favorite to win the 2008-09 national championship, but it also provided the four freshmen with an invaluable learning curve that will be based on development and not necessity.
"They're definitely going to get a chance to learn a lot from us, and also be able to contribute and be a part of something very special," Wayne Ellington told reporters during Sunday's ACC Operation Basketball in Atlanta.
Fans were able to get a sneak peek at the freshmen during "Late Night with Roy" on Friday night, and most observers in attendance left the scrimmage impressed with Zeller, a 7-foot, 220-pounder that posted a double-double with 12 points and 12 rebounds.
Frasor told the media after the event that the lanky McDonald's All-American runs the floor as well as most of the guards on the roster, and he possesses a soft touch that allows him to stretch the floor, as evidenced by his three-point shootout victory at the 2008 Kentucky Derby Festival.
"I'd say Tyler Zeller has probably had more moments to make you say, ‘wow,' than anybody else has," head coach Roy Williams said.
With Zeller reportedly gaining nearly 20 pounds since arriving in Chapel Hill, he will serve as a legitimate option to fill North Carolina's need for a third big man.
Davis is another option for Williams in the post. The McDonald's All-American stands 6-foot-10 and weighs in at 215, although Green indicated that Davis has also packed on 20 pounds since stepping on the UNC campus.
"He has a lot of moves offensively," Ellington said. "He's a shot blocker – that's something important that he brings to the table."
Unfortunately, the injury bug has already jumped on the Virginia freshman.
"Ed's got a little problem with his knee that we've been concerned about, [so we're] trying to hold him out a little bit," Williams said on Sunday. "We didn't practice him on Saturday morning because we had done the scrimmage on Friday night."
A UNC official confirmed to Inside Carolina on Tuesday that the diagnosis was "an irritated fat pad," and that Davis returned to practice on Monday.
Drew is the third McDonald's All-American of the freshman class, and the 6-foot-1, 180-pounder was the luxury of learning behind Lawson and Frasor – two veteran point guards that have both led North Carolina to 20-plus win seasons during their careers.
"Larry's a very smart point guard, with a quick first step," Green said. "He has the potential to be a great point guard in the upcoming years. He just needs to become a more patient player... He has a consistent jump shot – he can really shoot the ball"
"Don't think Larry's not fast," Green said. "He's a very fast point guard, but I think he's more under control… Ty's speed is out of this world. He's on another level, but Larry's not far behind him. He can move. In the next couple of years, he's going to get better. He's going to get faster and he's going to get stronger."
Watts is the fourth and final member of this class, but while he may not have entered this program with the McDonald's All-American tag beside his name, he is a prospect that Williams scouted in person several times last season. The sixth-year UNC head coach told the 6-foot-4, 205-pounder last October to wait on his collegiate decision if he was not satisfied with his options.
Watts followed Williams' advice, and then in May, he was rewarded with a North Carolina scholarship offer.
"He's very athletic," Ellington said. "He can shoot the ball pretty well and he has a lot of potential. When he gets it down, and he understands what Coach Williams wants and he learns our system a little bit better, he has the chance to be a really good player."
This freshman class may not be called upon to carry the load this season, but the lessons they will learn under the tutelage of Williams and a roster full of experienced veterans will lay the future foundation for this North Carolina program. It's likely that 10 members of this current Tar Heel squad will be gone next summer, so these four individuals will move to the forefront quick enough.