Roy Williams has pointed to James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock as his primary point producers all season, while Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland and P.J. Hairston have earned media attention for both good reasons and bad.
Hairston’s nine 3-pointers over the last two games – including a 4-of-4 effort in Tuesday’s 82-70 win over Boston College – deserve coverage, but it would be incorrect to assume he’s the only option off the bench providing any benefit.
After all, Hairston accounted for just 19 of the bench’s 47 points in the loss to N.C. State on Saturday – 11 points more than UNC’s starting five scored combined (36).
The learning curve may have been steeper than anticipated; the adjustments may have taken longer than expected. Make no mistake, though – UNC’s role players are finally transferring their growth and maturity from practice to games.
“I think in each of the last four or five games, we’ve had guys come off the bench to give us some good things,” Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
UNC’s bench more than doubled up Boston College’s on Tuesday (31-15) and shot 75 percent from the floor on 12-of-16 shooting. The starting rotation converted just 39.1 percent (18-of-46) of its attempts.
Hairston, of course, was the headliner with his 14 points before leaving the game with a concussion, but UNC received contributions from various others as well.
Brice Johnson scored six points on 3-of-4 shooting, grabbed three rebounds and blocked a shot in 11 minutes, while fellow freshman J.P. Tokoto played well for the third-consecutive game with three points and two assists in 13 minutes.
“J.P. was shaky as all get out in the first half and he played seven straight minutes in the second half without any turnovers and without any shakiness and things like that, so I thought that was big for us,” Williams said.
Freshman forward Joel James scored as many points (8) as he committed turnovers during a recent seven-game stretch, but has since scored 16 points while not committing a turnover over his last four games. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder was limited against Boston College due to the Eagles’ offensive approach.
“Joel did some nice things offensively at North Carolina State, but tonight was not his kind of game,” Williams said. “Guarding the 3-point line is not exactly what Joel was made to do, but he understands that.”
Meanwhile, sophomore forward Jackson Simmons matched his career-high from 18 days with eight points on 4-of-5 shooting against Boston College, playing valuable minutes down the stretch, including extending a late UNC possession twice with hustle plays.
“I think Jackson played the slip screen and helped by sagging off the screener better than anyone else that we had,” Williams said. “He didn’t play that many minutes in the first half, but he had 21 total and most of those were in the second half, so I think he was important to us, too.”
And, despite the fact that Desmond Hubert (4 pts, 2 rebs vs. BC) has become a mainstay in the starting lineup, his contributions of late are also worth mentioning. Williams referred to the sophomore forward on Monday as the team’s most fundamentally sound defensive player.
“Personally, I feel like Desmond has stood out the most,” McAdoo said when asked about the role players elevating their games. “Jackson has played phenomenal. They’re what really hold this team together. Guys that sacrifice for the betterment of the team.”
That’s a sentiment shared by all of the team’s veterans.
“They’re doing a great job so far,” Strickland said. “I think everybody just needs more experience. We’re doing a good job with that, but we need to do better. Just executing what Coach wants, knowing what to do and everybody knowing their role.”
The increased production from the bench should not be viewed as a luxury; it’s a necessity for a North Carolina team that often struggles to score. If you need evidence, just consider this stat – UNC’s starting lineup as a group has scored just seven points in 23 possessions over the last two games.