New rule gives UNC some practice time

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams thinks he has a pretty good idea of what he'll get out of incoming freshmen Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Joel James and Brice Johnson next season.

But thanks to a new NCAA rule, he’ll get even more of a preview in the coming weeks.

Starting this offseason, coaches are allowed to work with basketball players enrolled in summer school for eight weeks, up to to eight hours a week -- including two hours per week of skills-related instruction. The Tar Heels held four such two-hour sessions during the first session of summer school, and will hold four more once the freshmen arrive for the second session this weekend.

“It's not practice, but it's sort of in a practice form,” redshirt junior Leslie McDonald said recently.

“… It's nice because in pickup [games] you can only do so much, and you joke around. Not saying our pickup games are playful, they are very serious -- but there are a lot of things in pickup that you can't do in a formal setting. But now with the new NCAA rule it's more formal and more team oriented -- the ball is passed around, we screen, make sure we're in the right spots. And it really helps us prepare for next season."

Williams has been in favor of adding instruction time during the offseason, especially since most players stay on campus to take classes, work out on their own and play in pick-up games anyway.

“We’re coaching them, and mom and dad are sitting in the living room and expect us to make sure they keep developing and doing things, and all of a sudden we hit a four-month period that you can’t watch them shoot a jump shot," Williams said. “You can’t tell them, ‘You’ve got your right foot in front of your left.’ So it’s been silly in the past anyway, so I think it’s really good.

“I don’t think we’re going to be overwhelming kids when there’s only two hours of basketball-related activity a week.”

Indeed, Williams said about 75 minutes of each two-hour session has been used for individual and small group work, as coaches instruct players on their shooting, rebounding and solo skills. The rest of the time is usually reserved for a four-on-four scrimmage.

That’s another reason the Tar Heels can’t wait for the freshmen to arrive: With the departures of starters Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Kendall Marshall, only eight scholarship players have been available to participate (including senior guard Dexter Strickland, who hasn't been cleared to do much more than shoot after February knee surgery). The four new freshmen will allow UNC to play five-on-five intrasquad games and to preview, more realistically, the capabilities of next season’s team -- as well as its individual players.

“I think Marcus is really good,” Williams said, “but I’m going to have even a better feel for that when he’s out there with Leslie and James Michael [McAdoo], and seeing what he’s doing out there. So I think it’s a great rule, I think it’s something we’ve needed for a long time.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.