Coby White is the first-year phenom. Kenny Williams, Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson are the veterans who carry the bulk of the scoring load. But not enough has been said about sophomore big man Garrison Brooks.
After the injury to fellow sophomore Sterling Manley, the fifth member of UNC’s starting core has seen an uptick in minutes and responded well for the Tar Heels, posting 8.4 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Those are dramatic increases from last season, in which he posted 4.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in just 14.6 minutes per game.
In many ways, Brooks is the prototypical Roy Williams big man, minus an effective post-up game — though that, too, is improving. Brooks can run the floor, jostle with opponents on defense, swallow up offensive rebounds and clean up others’ misses on the glass. He’s averaging 2.5 offensive rebounds per game.
Brooks has also been markedly more comfortable in his second year in the UNC offense, borne out of a considerable increase in assists. Against N.C. State on Feb. 5, he stuffed the stat sheet more than any other game of his young career, posting eight points, a career-high 10 rebounds and career-high six assists.
His weaknesses are consistent with many other college big men. He’s hardly a threat offensively, when not the recipient of point-blank passes at the rim or gathering offensive rebounds under the basket. His post touch, as previously mentioned, is limited. And he’s not a 3-point threat, allowing defenders to sag off of him while he’s operating at the top of the key.
More troubling for the Tar Heels, however, is Brooks’ propensity to get in foul trouble, exacerbated by a lack of front court depth at the moment. Should Brooks have to sit extended minutes, North Carolina will be forced to rely on the likes of Maye and Johnson to carry the load inside. If Manley returns for the Duke game, these fears are alleviated, but it’s still something to watch for.
Aspects to watch for
With that in mind, something else to keep an eye on: Can Brooks defend the rim against Duke’s slashers — Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett — without sending them to the free-throw line? And who will win the battle on the glass between Brooks and the Blue Devil big men, Marques Bolden and Jack White?
The performance of Brooks, UNC’s most overlooked and under-appreciated starter, could end up being most crucial to a potential Tar Heel win. If Brooks can help North Carolina win the battle inside, while defending without fouling against Duke’s trove of athletic slashers, he can steady the inside-outside balance that is so often crucial to a recipe for UNC success.
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