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UNC Film Room: Progressions

UIn order to be a successful player in a Roy Williams offense, particularly his iteration of Dean Smith’s iconic ‘Carolina Break,’ you have to be able to make reads. 

A lot of reads. 

Unlike many other offensive systems throughout the NCAA, North Carolina’s is unique in its heightened emphasis of post scoring and facilitation, with much of the offense relying on sound production from the largest players on the court. Although many schemes run plenty of pick-and-roll sets and other formations that use bigs as play finishers, UNC relies on its bigs to both finish plays (duck-ins, post-ups, cuts, etc.) and create them (kickouts, hi-lo’s, backdoor feeds, etc). 

This, of course, places significant weight on the shoulders of whomever finds themselves stationed at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ in Williams’ offense: This year, those two players have largely been junior forward Garrison Brooks and five-star freshman center Armando Bacot. 

For two bigs whose scoring arsenals don’t expand beyond the 180 square feet that is the painted area, the ability to make timely reads is vital to having any sense of spacing. If neither player understands where they’re supposed to be at any given time, or if they’re incapable of making the right passing read at the right time, then the entire offense can collapse on itself. 

For the start of the season, that happened regularly. Quite a lot, actually, which is one of the primary reasons for Cole Anthony having to carry such a massive burden as the team’s only real creation threat. 

Without Anthony in the picture since his Dec. 16 surgery on his torn meniscus — which he may be returning from against Boston College on Saturday — Williams was forced to shift the focus of the offense to his dual-post weapons in Brooks and Bacot, forcing them to figure things out and figure things out fast. 

For Brooks, he’s done just that. In his last seven games, he’s averaging 21.7 points, 10.6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists, serving as the Tar Heels’ primary scoring option and fail-safe when times are tough. His experience and familiarity within the Carolina Break has stayed consistent, as he’s made relatively sound decisions throughout the season. 

For Bacot, however, his decision-making as a playmaker has been inconsistent. To begin the year, his success connecting with Brooks as the passer in hi-lo sets was, in a word, nonexistent. Making matters worse, he would often become a blackhole when receiving the ball near the basket, eschewing passing opportunities and instead forcing the issue in the post. His efficiency as a scorer (47.6 FG%) has been suboptimal throughout the season, which adds even more pressure on him to make up for it in terms of setting up scoring opportunities for his teammates.

Lately, though, he’s been making substantial strides as a playmaker, making the progressions that a Carolina big man is supposed to me. 

Similar to Brooks, Bacot’s recent stretch of games has been nothing short of revelatory: After only putting up six assists through his first 13 games as a Tar Heel (0.35 assist-to-turnover ratio), Bacot has dished out 23 dimes over his last seven games alone (1.44 assist-to-turnover ratio). 

Much of this is due to opportunity, as the Anthony-less offense needs its bigs more than ever, with Carolina’s guards making significantly more entry passes (and finding more success) than earlier in the season. 

But, while Bacot earned quite a bit of national media recognition for his post scoring, it was his passing that jumped out as his most useful trait on the offensive end. 

Although his assist numbers weren’t great — he only averaged 1.3 assists (0.68 A:TO) in 19 EYBL games and 0.9 assists (0.6 A:TO) in 18 recorded games with IMG Academy — he flashed legitimate talent as a passer. 

Playing as the third option (behind Arizona’s Josh Green and Villanova’s Jeremiah Robinson-Earl) for a stacked IMG Ascenders squad that won the high school national championship, Bacot’s role was simplified, allowing him to work well as a linker, where he would kick it out from the post or make the right reads by hitting open teammates:  

He also excelled at creating close shot attempts for a roster full of athletic finishers, whether he was throwing soft lobs to Robinson-Earl or squeezing difficult passes to cutters through tight spaces: 

On both his lobs and outlets, Bacot routinely displayed his knack for keeping his head up, while also showing off his impressive touch as a passer: 

Quite simply, he was capable of making passes and reads that most centers are incapable of making, from passing out of shots near the basket to delivering actual skip passes — which is what you want to see from good ball-handlers! — in a natural manner. His vision as a passer was, at times, nearly elite for a center prospect, seen in these high-level flashes: 

Bacot entered UNC as a skilled center with legitimate utility as a playmaking 5, but up until the past few games, we didn’t get to see that materialize. Now, with the team’s chemistry better than ever and gradual improvement across the board, Bacot’s playmaking has improved by leaps and bounds. 

In his last three games, he’s averaging 4.7 assists, accumulating 14 — of his season total of 29! — assists against Virginia Tech, Miami, and NC State, consistently moving the ball, finding the open man, and displaying optimal patience when congested around the basket. 

He was instrumental in picking apart Miami’s hapless 2-3 zone defense, reversing the ball along the perimeter or whipping the ball out of the paint, generating open shots and several hockey assists: 

His selfless decision-making has been refreshing, as has his remarkable patience when congested and even doubled in the post. 

Although his scoring efficiency has been up-and-down (seen in a 2-for-10 shooting display against NC State), he’s been able to use his presence as a post-up threat and driver to draw in defensive pressure to open up the perimeter: 

He’s generated great chances near the basket, delivering some nifty passes over defenders to cutters… 

…leading guards on backdoor cuts… 

…and warping passes around defenders to get Brooks scoring opportunities in the post. 

Bacot has been making decisions quicker than ever, surveying the floor and processing what’s unfolding in front of him in a matter of milliseconds. At times, he’s gone through several progressions in the same possession, such as the quick hi-lo entry pass (which just gets by the defender’s hand) and the instantaneous redirect to the corner for a Justin Pierce three-pointer: 

And, on occasion, the flashes of brilliance resurface in spectacular fashion. In what was perhaps his best offensive sequence of the season thus far, Bacot manages to quickly initiate the primary break off of the rebound, runs the floor hard, fakes the pass to get the help defender in the air so that he can drive into the paint, and then whips the pass out to Leaky Black after collapsing the defense: 

Armando Bacot’s recent streak of positive playmaking out of the low- and high-post has been encouraging, not only in terms of his own growth as a player (both in the present and future), but in terms of how the team fits together during the final 11 games of the regular season. 

A turbulent first third of the season saw a team struggle to find its identity with Anthony, and the middle third saw an Anthony-less team scrounge around before figuring out how to run a respectable offense through the team’s big men. 

Sitting at 10-10 overall and 3-6 in the ACC, North Carolina is in do or die mode. With Anthony likely making his return against Boston College on Saturday, the team will need to figure out how to make all of the pieces finally fit together. 

Roles are more defined, scorers have emerged, and the team generally seems to know what it’s doing out on the court. 

How Anthony reintegrates into everything is still up in the air, but one thing is for certain: With Brandon Robinson and Garrison Brooks erupting as key scorers and Armando Bacot’s finding himself as a post facilitator, Anthony will be rejoining a team that’s better equipped to make a run at the postseason than the one he left back in December. 

How Anthony reintegrates into everything is still up in the air, but with Brandon Robinson and Garrison Brooks erupting as key scorers and Armando Bacot’s finding himself as a post facilitator, he’ll will be rejoining a team that’s better equipped to make a run at the postseason than the one he left back in December. 

And although most of the press is focused on what Robinson and Brooks have done for the team over the past few weeks, no one should overlook the progress that Bacot has made. Their scoring has been crucial, but his effectiveness as a playmaker has been nothing short of revelatory. 

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