UNC's Justin Watts (24) brings the ball down court against Barton College in the second half of the Tar Heels' first exhibition game of the season. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
CHAPEL HILL -- With the addition of three talented freshmen perimeter players, conventional wisdom figured that North Carolina junior Justin Watts might be the odd guard out of the Tar Heels’ rotation this season.
But judging by his role during UNC’s 108-67 pre-season blowout victory over Barton on Friday night, he might be a big sub in.
The 6-feet-4 athlete from Durham was, surprisingly, the first reserve inserted into the game for Carolina at the Smith Center, finishing with 13 points on 6-for-7 shooting, with three rebounds and three assists in 18 minutes.
Granted, it was only an exhibition game, but his strong play further solidified his attempt to take over the reserve small forward/power forward position that redshirt senior Will Graves would have played, had Graves not been kicked off the team last month. It’s a role that could be key, considering how thin the Tar Heels are in the post.
“You’re going to have foul trouble, you’re going to have the flu, you’re going to have those kinds of things,’’ coach Roy Williams said. “And he’s the most veteran, most experienced [reserve] player we have. Later in the season, we might do some things with Harrison [Barnes] down there, with Reggie [Bullock] down there, it depends on how they develop. But Justin is more experienced than those guys, and he’s really doing a nice job. … He’ll be crucial for us out there.”
Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Larry Drew II, Dexter Strickland and Barnes made up the starting lineup. But with the Tar Heels leading 11-10, Watts was the first sub in, replacing 6-10 the Henson and playing the ‘4’ position. Watts made his presence felt immediately, burying a 3-pointer to push the lead to 14-10.
Granted, Watts is a bit vertically challenged to play a traditional role in the lane, but Williams is looking for a player with the athleticism to lure bigger opposing power forwards away from the basket. And frankly, with only three Tar Heels 6-feet-9 or taller on the team, someone needs to be available to rest Zeller, Henson or graduate student transfer Justin Knox, when necessary.
“I’ve got to use my quickness, I’ve got to draw [defenders] outside of the 3-point line a little bit,’’ Watts said. “It’s kind of different from playing a guard spot, but like I said, the defense we play, we’re in the lane, we deny -- and I’m doing the same thing a guard would do.”
At a solid 210 pounds, his strength helps, too.
“It’s kind of funny, because him and I are always competing in the weight room, to see who can clean the most, who can bench the most,’’ said the 7-feet, 250-pound Zeller. “ We kind of push each other, so he is a lot stronger than he looks.”
While Williams was judging how Watts reacted to his increased role, he had plenty of other performances to ponder, too.
Considering his newly-minted pre-season All-America status, many figured Barnes, the freshman phenom, would star from the outset. But while Barnes finished with a shaky-looking seven points and six turnovers on 2-for-9 shooting, Zeller took the leadership role – finishing with a healthy-looking 25 points and 14 rebounds.
“I would think that 2-for-9, and six turnovers, and 0-for-4 from the 3-point line is not the kind of game we’re going to see from him [Barnes],’’ Williams said. “…There is no doubt in my mind that later tonight, he’ll be back in the gym.”
Leslie McDonald and Strickland both added 12 points for UNC, while Henson and Bullock chipped in 10 apiece. Freshman point guard Kendall Marshall had nine assists.
Sophomore Gerald Boston led Barton with 20 points.
The question now for Watts is how much he’ll ultimately get on the floor once the regular season begins next Friday. Last year, he played in the first 13 games before he sprained his right ankle. He appeared in only 10 games after that during a topsy-turvy year that saw the Tar Heels lose 17 games and fail to make the NCAA tournament.
“A door has been open for me,” Watts said. “And I just want to try to take advantage of this opportunity, and do the best I can do.”