UNC basketball media day notebook

North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams should have more time to work on his golf game this fall.

Per new NCAA rules, the UNC practice season will begin Friday — two weeks earlier than usual and 42 days before UNC’s first game Nov. 8 against Oakland. The extra time will allow for more practices — about 29 instead of the 21-22 practices in a typical offseason — and it should also allow for a few more breaks in between.

“I know we’ll be taking off the third, fourth and fifth of October because I’ll be playing golf,” Williams said in Thursday’s UNC media day. “It’ll be my last golf of the year, and it’s been a horrible dadgum summer for my golf game.”

It’s also been a less-than-stellar summer for P.J. Hairston, who will practice with UNC but will also miss games due to his offseason troubles.

With the sharpshooting guard’s playing time up in the air, Williams said UNC will take advantage of the extra practice time to try some new lineup configurations.

“One of the things we’re going to do early is more freelance stuff — to play two point guards in the lineup, to play with three big guys in the lineup,” Williams said. “We’re going to do more freelance stuff earlier this year than we ever have and focus on it even more.”

In the two-point-guard lineup, sophomore Marcus Paige would play side-to-side with freshman Nate Britt, a fellow left-handed point guard from Washington D.C. They’ve tried that alignment in pickup games, and Paige said he would be on board with using it in games.

“I love it,” Paige said. “Two guys that really know how to play the game, like to get other people involved and can attack the basket like we can on the court at the same time is going to make it easier for everyone else. We understand spacing and both of us being able to shoot will help as well.”

Last season, Williams made a much-publicized midseason switch to a smaller starting five, slotting Hairston into the power forward position and playing forward James Michael McAdoo at the five. Paige said he believes UNC will go back to a bigger lineup, with 6-foot-10 sophomore Joel James the frontrunner to play center.

Williams wouldn’t commit to a lineup just yet — that will be sorted it out in the next 42 days — but he made it clear what his preference would be.

“I hope to stay big, but what I got to do is pick out the best five guys and put them on the court,” Williams said. “Somebody’s gotta step up because if you look at our stats last year, we didn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as many times as we have the past. Down the stretch, people out-rebounded us.

“I like to think that we’ll get back to a better balance.”

James an ‘entirely different person’

Joel James will look a bit different this season — starting with the number on his back.

“I gotta please my point guard,” James said, laughing. “Nate Britt wanted No. 0. I figured if that’s the guy that’s going to pass me the ball, I gotta make him happy, so I gave him the zero.”

In place of the zero, James will wear the No. 42, which once belonged to former UNC big man Sean May.

“That’s some big shoes to fill,” James said. “I actually had a conversation with big May, and I asked him for his blessing for his number. And he said yes — as long as I’m not dropping balls. He said, ‘Make it look good.’”

If his offseason work pays off, it will look good. James, who only started playing basketball in the 10th grade, said he made it a point of emphasis to play pickup games as often as possible this summer, building up his basketball IQ. He also continued to progress physically, cutting fat and building muscle.

“You can tell looking at him, he’s transformed,” Paige said. “He’s a monster now. His body feels good, he’s healthy, and he’s starting to get the mental aspect.”

Williams went even further:

“Joel looks like an entirely different person.”

Odds and ends

  • Paige and McAdoo will serve as team captains this year, with Hairston and fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald losing leadership responsibilities. Both players have been linked to convicted felon Haydn “Fats” Thomas, and though McDonald isn’t currently facing suspension, he isn’t entirely off the hook. “He hasn’t been as deep in the doghouse, but he knows there’s some barking going on … We need Leslie to be a leader by example.”
  • Williams was quick to praise freshman center Kennedy Meeks on his offseason conditioning. Meeks dropped from 317 to 292 pounds, Williams said. On the other end of the spectrum, Paige and fellow sophomore Brice Johnson have packed on weight. “(Paige) looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger right now compared to what he looked like last year,” Williams said.
  • After weighing about 180 pounds a season ago, the 6-foot-9 Johnson is now at 207 pounds after working with trainer Jonas Sahratian, which he said should allow him to handle more physicality at forward. In another drastic change, Johnson has ditched his mustache. “I got a haircut, and the guy trimmed it too low,” Johnson said. “He trimmed it pencil thin, and I was like, you know what, ‘Just get rid of it.’” Will he grow it back? “It’s gone forever,” Johnson said.
  • Despite the recent controversy surrounding Hairston and the Tar Heels, Williams said he won’t be prohibiting his players from using Twitter. “We do monitor it, we try to talk with them,” Williams said, “but as of this moment, I am not going to tell my players they cannot use Twitter. This is the United States of America.” That’s good news for Hark the Tweets.

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