UNC: Joel James’ Development, Leslie’s Big Night and Roy’s Rage

Freshman big man Joel James got his first career start, and he played just 12 minutes (three in the second half). Carolina went with a smaller line-up for much of the second half because UAB was playing some quicker, perimeter-oriented big men. James and his fellow starters at the five – Brice Johnson and Desmond Hubert – aren’t ready to guard those types of players right now.

“(UAB’s) lineup was hard for Brice (Johnson) and Joel (James) to get out and guard people on the floor. They’re freshmen. They’re going to get better,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “I told them they came here at 18, they’ll probably leave here when they’re 55 and sometime between now and then, they’ll be able to guard guys out on the floor. But that’s what made us go small.”

The question of who will start at that five-spot is still up in the air, and no one has really separated themselves from the pack. Johnson is great offensively and quick as a cat, but not a great defender. Hubert can play defense, but is almost a non-factor offensively. James has the most potential of any of the three.

At 6-foot-10 and over 260 pounds with surprising agility, the big man has all the physical tools to be a great player. The problem is, he’s only been playing basketball since his sophomore year of high school. He’s an eager learner, but that lack of experience shows. He still doesn’t know how to use his body to get position and isn’t always as aggressive as he should be.

“Joel, he just wants to try to do anything for his team. He’s still coming along for us as a player to help our team out a lot because he can be a big part of this team,” junior Reggie Bullock said. “He just doesn’t know how good he is right now. I just feel like it’s just going to take a little more time for him to be able to realize that we really need him to score in the post.

“He sets good screens. He tries to share the ball a little bit too much when he’s in the post instead of just backing his man down, because he doesn’t understand how strong he is down low.”

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Leslie McDonald tore his ACL in the summer of 2011 in a summer league game, and the redshirt junior watched from the bench as his team came arguably a wrist injury away from reaching the Final Four. As he persevered his way through a tough rehab and somehow resisted the urge to come back last year he said he never dreamed he’d have a game like he had on Saturday.

McDonald had 24 points on 7-of-11 shooting (5-of-8 from three) and played 26 minutes, the most he has played this year. When he has played 18 or more minutes this season in four games, he has shot 14-of-26 from three compared to 3-of-8 in the other four games. But considering how perilously close his basketball career came to ending, he’s grateful for whatever minutes he can get.

“I really don’t care: whatever is given to me,” McDonald said. “If I have to play long minutes, I’ll play long minutes. If I have to play spot minutes, I’ll play spot minutes. I’m going to play the same way I’ve been playing for years, and that’s playing like Leslie McDonald.”

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P.J. Hairston couldn’t make the trip to Indiana because of a sprained left knee. (The sophomore played 23 minutes and had 16 points on Saturday.) Because he couldn’t travel, he sat and watched the game alone in his dorm room. “I was actually playing a game of Madden before the game came on. I cut the TV on at 9:30 and sat and watched the whole thing. Didn’t change the channel,” Hairston said.

He said he watched it like a scout or a coach, looking for mistakes his teammates were making (of which there were many). But he couldn’t remain completely emotionally detached. “I mean, I was kind of jumpy at some points of the game, like, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ Because in the first half, we had it,” Hairston said. “I thought we had the game. The second half, we came out struggling and didn’t hit any shots and Indiana was getting in transition, finishing fast breaks and making their shots.”

As a scout, he was asked to evaluate his head coach’s mini-meltdown against UAB. Williams ripped his coat off a spiked a clipboard, causing a marker to go flying in the air. “When he slammed the clipboard, I saw the marker go in the air. I kind of looked up for about five seconds and it was still going up. I looked back at Coach like, ‘Dang.’ He slammed the clipboard pretty hard because the marker was in the air for at least five seconds,” Hairston said.

But Williams has already been that angry at least once this season: when UNC was struggling against Butler in Maui, he punched a clipboard and broke it in half. “Luckily we have a backup,” Hairston quipped of the clipboard substituting for the team itself as an object of Williams’ anger.

Williams has been known to show his displeasure at team’s lack of execution, but the better his team is, the less often it happens. Hairston said it only happened once in a game last year. “The only time I really saw him get that mad was either the Florida State game last year or in practice,” Hairston said (UNC lost by 33 points to the Seminoles). “After the Florida State game is when basically we kind of picked it up and realized we’re better than that.”

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