Trio still competing for UNC's fifth slot

Desmond Hubert (14), Joel James (0) and Brice Johnson (11) have been sharing minutes at center. Rob Kinnan/US Presswire

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina forwards Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson didn’t know who was going to start last Saturday until about 30 minutes before tipoff against ETSU, when coach Roy Williams wrote James’ name on a locker room board along with the rest of the opening lineup.

The same will likely be the case this Saturday, when the 21st-ranked Tar Heels play East Carolina.

“I’m not settled,’’ Williams said. "... The battle will continue, because I’m not sold on anybody.”

Never, during Williams' 10 seasons as UNC's head coach, has a starting position been so wavering (at least when there wasn’t an injury involved). In 2005-06, Williams swapped out shooting guard Marcus Ginyard with Wes Miller about midway through the season (although both ended up playing roughly the same minutes). And four games into the 2010-11 ACC slate, he replaced point guard Larry Drew II with Kendall Marshall. But that's pretty much it.

Williams often has admitted he likes to settle on a starting lineup and stick with it, when possible. Yet this year, Hubert, a sophomore, started the first five games, freshman Johnson the next one, Hubert got the nod again the following game, and freshman James has started the last two.

Director of basketball operations Joe Holladay, a longtime member of Williams' staff who was filling in for the head coach on his radio show on Monday, said he wouldn’t be surprised if Johnson is back in the opening lineup for the next couple of games. But he doesn’t know for sure.

“No one has stepped forward and said, ‘This position is mine,’” Williams said recently. “And I don’t make those decisions, players do. If I want to play, I want to beat your butt out. It’s pretty simple: I want to play the guys who are playing the best, and no one has stepped forward yet.”

One of the conundrums is that each of the trio brings different skills to the position.

Hubert, at 6-foot-9 and 220 pounds, is the most experienced of the bunch -- even though he only averaged 4.9 minutes last season, behind now-NBA rookies Tyler Zeller and John Henson. He's defensive minded, but he struggles with consistency and scoring points (1.1 ppg in 10.1 mpg).

“Desmond can really run, he can block shots, he’s good defensively, and he’s a good team player -- he’s a good teammate to our guys,’’ Holladay said. “He’s not overly skilled offensively right now, so he’s going to continue to work on the things he can do -- play to his strengths and improve his weaknesses.”

Johnson, meanwhile, carries the most offensive punch. Dubbed “Easy B” by his teammates for all the easy buckets he scores, he averages 9.4 ppg in 14.1 mpg. But he’s also the thinnest of the threesome, at 6-9 and 187 pounds, and he doesn’t always play as hard in practice as coaches want him to.

“Brice, man, he’s been about a point a minute when he’s in there,’’ Holladay said. “He gets in there and scores real quick. He’s got great touch, he’s got great instincts around the goal. ... He can score some points, and we’re going to need some points this year.”

And then there’s James, the biggest but most raw of the bunch. At 6-10, 260 pounds, he’s a load for foes to guard (and be guarded by), but he only began playing organized basketball as a sophomore in high school, and he’s still learning. He’s working, though. While most players sweat through two jerseys in practice, Holladay said James goes through three. He’s averaging 4.1 ppg and 16.6 mpg.

“Joel has got good touch, you can see that when he’s shooting free throws,’’ Holladay said. “He’s a little mechanical inside, he’s a little slow right now getting rid of the basketball. He can run, for a man his size, and he’s got great character and a great work ethic. I mean, he is ringing wet in practice after the first 20 minutes.”

Holladay joked that when James goes to Sutton’s for a meal, he “eats about half of what you’ve got in stock down there.” But his size, in this season’s lineup, may give him an edge.

Sophomore James Michael McAdoo is the team’s leading scorer (15 ppg) at the other post position, but he prefers to play facing the goal, not with his back to the basket. He’s not a physical, big-bodied traditional power player like UNC has had in past seasons, but with James in the lineup beside him, he doesn’t necessarily have to be.

“If you have Joel in the game, that means James Michael doesn’t have to guard a big guy,’’ Holladay said. "... Let’s say you play Brice and James Michael together. Well, one of them’s going to take a beating, because they’ve got a bruiser on the other side, once we get to the ACC, so it might affect one or the other. So I don’t mind Joel being down there low, even though he’s not a point a minute like Brice.”

In a perfect world, UNC could merge the plusses of all three -- Hubert's defense, Johnson's offense, James' power -- into one scary Frankenplayer. But without that ability, each big man is left to try to prove himself, while improving his game.

Williams has said he doesn’t know how long the revolving door at center will continue. But with only four more games until the beginning of ACC play, the upcoming weeks will be key to trying to set a lineup.

The trio of forwards say it can be a little nerve-racking, not knowing who is going to start until 30 minutes before tipoff. But it has also led to good competition and to making each other better.

“We all play for the same team, so it doesn’t matter [who starts],” James said. “If it’s Dez or Brice, I’m going to be cheering them on from the bench, and when I get in I’m going to play my hardest.”