Off and Running

Photos by Alex Kormann

Here we go. After Roy Williams left the podium, after team photos and interview sessions for returning players, the Tar Heel men’s basketball team took the floor at the Dean Smith Center for practice. They trickled out of the locker room, each shooting casually at one of eight baskets. Brandon Robinson wore his practice jersey hanging from his neck a la Superman. Theo Pinson’s hung from his shorts. There was the sound of basketballs bouncing, of rims clanging, and joking. Roy Williams made his way to center court.

And then at precisely 3:30, strength coach Jonas Sahratian took over. The student-athletes took to the baseline. Soon, the sounds of bouncing balls were replaced with squeaking shoes. Other than that, and Sahratian’s occasional change of instruction, there was quiet. Stretches. Walking knee hugs. Figure fours. Lunge and hip flexor.

Then, it was to shooting stations. The Tar Heels undertook shots reminiscent of a drill favored by the late John Lotz, a Dean Smith assistant. Many of them started close to the basket and gradually worked outward as they made shots. Seniors Joel Berry and Pinson ended up well beyond the three-point line.

“Post players, let’s go!” Williams shouted at the next whistle. And so the head coach and assistant Brad Frederick fed the big men with a bounce pass for turnaround shots. On the other basket, with assistant coaches Hubert Davis and Steve Robinson, two lines of guards shot from the wings and then corners over stationary ‘D-Man’ shields, counting in unison as they made consecutive baskets.

Later, it was the guards working against zone defense, the big men rebounding and making outlet passes, sometimes to the likes of former Tar Heels Kendall Marshall and Nate Britt.

Williams called the his team to center court at 3:53 p.m. When they broke, the Tar Heels began running fast-break drills familiar to anyone who spent time at Carolina Basketball School. Chest passes and lay-ups –Sterling Manley made a reverse dunk look easy– then the old three against two, two against one drill.

Roy Williams is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. He’s hung three national championship banners as head coach of the Tar Heels. But he didn’t get there, he didn’t hang those banners by sitting and watching his team practice.

“It’s not called a slow break!” he shouted. “We do not run slow!”

“Make a better pass, Kenny!”

When senior walk-on Aaron Rohlman made a poor decision on a press-break drill, Williams let him have it. “Pass it to anybody,” Williams had said. With guard Jalek Felton in front of him, Rohlman delivered the ball to 6’10 freshman Brandon Huffman. “I sure as hell wouldn’t do that,” Williams said. “Biggest guy on the floor." He shook his head. "God, almighty!”

No one was immune. Not the current student-athletes, not Marshall, not Britt, not Desmond Hubert, working out with the big men. When he bricked a dunk on a fast break, Hubert hit the floor for push-ups.

When the Tar Heels did get to five-on-five scrimmage play, Berry and Pinson were joined by Cameron Johnson, Luke Maye and freshman Garrison Brooks. Justin Jackson was not here. Nor were Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley.

But Pinson and Berry are. This is a young Tar Heel team, but no one in the country will have better leaders.

The freshmen showed both promise and raw ability, sometimes within seconds of one another. Felton powered through the defense on one possession, knifing inside and leaving a pass for Brooks. But the next time down, he passed the ball to Brandon Robinson, behind him on the break. Backcourt violation. “Why would you throw the damn ball back?” Williams said. “You don’t throw the ball back! Run!”

But it wasn’t just admonishment. No, Williams was coaching. All the time, coaching. Encouraging his players to run. Stressing movement on offense (“I don’t want a point and two wings after the first pass.”). Teaching his big men to get as low on the block as possible. (“When I’m talking to Brandon, you better be listening,” he said to Manley. Then, turning to Huffman, “When I’m talking to him, you better be listening.”). Telling his guards not to take just any shot, but to hunt a good one. Rewarding screens and charges taken. And like Williams, Berry and Pinson were coaching from the sideline when they weren’t on the court.

“Cross over, Jalek! Cross over!” Berry said to Felton.

“Get to the hip!” Pinson yelled to Kenny Williams.

It’s October 17. The regular season is 24 days away. This team has a ton of talent, but more questions than answers at this point. One play in particular illustrated that much in 2017-18 is still To Be Determined.

During one five-on-five play, Berry’s three-point shot came off the front of the rim. Pinson, though, was there to rebound the miss and quickly find Maye for a lay-up. Williams stopped play, complimenting Pinson on the effort, and holding him up as exemplary. The Tar Heels would have to crash the boards on offense, the coach said.

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“We do not have Isaiah. We do not have Kennedy. We do not have Tony,” Williams said.

And they don’t. But last year’s team didn’t have Marcus. Didn’t have Brice. Didn’t have Joel James.

On this day, the next offensive possession ended with a Cameron Johnson swish from the corner. Then Garrison Brooks hit from eight feet. Neither of those players wore Tar Heel jerseys a year ago. This is a different team than the one that hung that banner. But they’re off and running.