CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – As he looked around the locker room after North Carolina’s loss to Kansas in the NCAA Regional finals last March, forward Desmond Hubert couldn’t help but grow a little anxious about all the talent the Tar Heels would lose to the NBA.
But after playing additional offseason pickup games with his teammates, putting on a few more pounds, and gaining confidence in his still-developing hook shot, “I’m a lot more excited now than nervous.”
Which, the Tar Heels hope, is a good sign. Hubert, who averaged 4.9 minutes in 25 games as a freshman, will likely need to play a much bigger role on UNC’s front line next season, considering the losses of ACC Player of the Year Tyler Zeller and ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson to the NBA draft. (Both are expected to be first-round picks next week, along with fellow starters Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.)
Sophomore James Michael McAdoo, who came on strong late in the season, will start at one forward slot. Hubert, incoming freshmen Joel James and Brice Johnson, and also-sparingly used sophomore Jackson Simmons will be competing for the other starting spot -- as well as reserve minutes at both positions.
“I think some people are going to be surprised,’’ said Hubert, whose thin 6-foot-9 frame, expansive 7-3 wingspan, and Gumby-like defensive-mindedness have drawn plenty of comparisons to Henson.
“I know we’re going to be young, but we have a lot of talent. The freshmen coming in are really good. As soon as we start learning from each other, learning how to play together, to get rid of those early jitters and stuff like that, I think we’re going to be really good."
Hubert said he learned plenty of lessons from Zeller and Henson last season: timing, preparation, work ethic. But having to sit and watch wasn’t always easy, especially after averaging 16 points and 9 rebounds as a senior at New Egypt (N.J.) High.
“I remember playing a couple good minutes in one game [last season] … then not playing for two or three games in a row,’’ he said. “It was kind of hard. I guess that kind of hurt my confidence a little bit. But I had some great guys ahead of me, so at the end of the day … I couldn’t be mad or anything like that, because the guys ahead of me were just terrific guys.”
Plus, he said, he got to learn from those guys each day -- watching how Zeller sprinted down the court; emulating how Henson used his timing and reach to block and out-rebound bigger, broader opponents.
“When I first started practicing against them, it was really a one-sided match,’’ Hubert said. “And as the season started to go on, I feel like sometimes -- it didn’t happen many times -- but I could say there were a few times when I won out over Z or John. It didn’t happen very often, but it happened sometimes.”
Enough to take pride in, and build upon.
With Zeller and Henson gone, Hubert smiles and shakes his head at the fact that he’s now one of the “veterans” of the front line. But he’s working hard to set a good example.
By hitting the weight room often and eating up to six meals a day, he now weighs in at 220 pounds -- up from 193 when he first arrived in Chapel Hill last summer. A defensive specialist (he recorded 17 points and 37 rebounds, total, last season), he’s also been developing a go-to move: a right- and left-handed hook shot. Former Tar Heel forwards Rasheed Wallace, Marvin Williams and Deon Thompson have also taken him under their collective wing, offering tips and tricks and even more competition.
Now, Hubert is anxious about next season in a good way.
“When I first got here, I had no idea what I was in for, I had no idea what to expect at all,’’ he said. “… Now I feel like I’m in a position where I have to teach the freshmen that are coming in some of the things that John and Z taught me. I’ve got to be a major part of the team this year. It’s kind of different, but it’s a challenge I’m willing to accept. I’m kind of excited for it.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.