by Rodger Bohn / @rodgerbohn

For most programs, the blow of losing four players (including three underclassmen) to the NBA Draft would be crippling. After all, the team was a Kendall Marshall injury away from being right there with Kentucky in last year’s National Championship game. A top-10 recruiting class later and the University of North Carolina is merely rebuilding their next group of talent to groom for the NBA.

Freshmen Joel James, Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and JP Tokoto comprised UNC’s recruiting class and all showed flashes of brilliance in the Tar Heels’ exhibition against Shaw. Joel James led the way with 13 points and provided a formidable presence in the middle. Brice Johnson changed the game on both ends of the floor with his athleticism. Marcus Paige didn’t put up huge numbers, but played the game as if he had been running the show for an entire season. Athletic dynamo JP Tokoto showed promise on the defensive end and got what will be a long highlight-laden career started off with a huge tip-dunk. While the team struggled a bit at times, its leader seemed to be happy with the production of his freshman.

“It was good for us to get in front of a crowd,” Roy Williams said of his freshmen. “We’ve been trying to do things in practice. We have station work. We have four-on-four group work, and now they’ve got to put it into game action and I think that’s what they did.”

No freshman stood out more than 6-10 man-child Joel James. He used his massive body to get position deep in the post and take up a ton of space on the defensive end. Once he got the ball, the Miami native showed an intriguing offensive repertoire. He showed a reliable jumper out to 12 feet, turned toward either shoulder in the post, and was provided a needed sense of physicality down low. Though Joel came off of the bench against Shaw, we don’t see that continuing much longer, especially given the high praise his head coach is giving him.

“Joel’s a big body. He gives us that big presence inside. He’s going to mess it up sometimes, but I think that he does give us that inside,” explained Williams. “You look at his line: 6-7, 7 rebounds, 13 points. You should take that every night, if you get that out of him, but that’s going to be hard. You don’t do those things every night.”

Of course the team won’t be relying on the freshmen to carry the load. Former McDonald’s All-Americans Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, Reggie Bullock and PJ Hairston all have the talent to have monster seasons. Strickland and McDonald are coming off of injuries, but both appeared destined for breakout campaigns before going down respectively. Bullock was the top 2-guard by some recruiting services in the Class of ’10 and as a junior, needs to prove that he is more than just a 6-7 shooter. Hairston blends explosive athleticism with NBA three-point range and was named MVP of this past summer’s NC Pro-Am. Despite all of the perimeter scoring potential that Carolina has, the team will only go as far as sophomore James McAdoo takes them inside.

Projected as a top-five pick in every mock draft, McAdoo exhibited flashes of brilliance during his freshman campaign. Though just 19 years old, McAdoo has a 230-pound body of an NBA veteran. While he struggled at times defensively guarding Shaw’s Karron Johnson, McAdoo changed the game with his athleticism and showed an improved offensive game. The turnaround jumper that McAdoo showed out of the post appeared to be a potential go to move, which would only add to the number of easy buckets he gets by running the floor and crashing the offensive glass. But the sophomore himself believes that the new look Tar Heels will only go as far as their defense takes them.

“Defense has really been an emphasis in practice,” McAdoo said of this year’s team. “Going into the game just focusing on being a better defensive team than past Carolina teams and we have to make up for some offensive firepower that we aren’t going to have this year.”

Video courtesy of CityLeagueHoops.