How Important Will Three-Point Shooting be for North Carolina?

Posted by @bradjenk on October 20th, 2014

If you read any preview on North Carolina this season, perimeter shooting is universally cited as the key to the success of the team. We know that, barring injury, All-America candidate Marcus Paige is set to be one of the primary three-point marksman in the nation, but beyond that, this team lacks proven perimeter shooters to support the star junior. The situation in Chapel Hill raises some interesting questions, which we will look at one at a time below.

North Carolina's Marcus Paige Was On Fire - Making 5 Threes Versus Pittsburgh. (Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

North Carolina’s Marcus Paige Will Need Some 3-Pt Shooting Help in 2014-15.
(Photo: Robert Willett/ Raleigh News & Observer)

1. How important has three-point shooting been at North Carolina under Roy Williams historically? The answer to this question is that it has not been very important. One could reasonably argue that Williams does not hold three-point shooting in very high esteem on either end of the court. Defensively, last year’s Tar Heel squad allowed opponents to attempt 34.1 percent of their field goals from beyond the arc, a mark that ranked fairly high (#222) in the NCAA. But as a matter of fact, that ranking matches the team’s average over the last five years. On the offensive end, Williams’ teams have not made three-point shooting much of a priority either. Only once in the last eight years have the Tar Heels ranked among the top 299 teams in the country in frequency of shots launched from deep. That outlier group, of course, was the 2012-13 team, when Williams by necessity switched to a perimeter-based lineup in early February with good results. That Tar Heels squad still did not finish high nationally in three-point attempts taken (#237), but it profited greatly from improved accuracy (37.2%). It’s safe to say that whenever Williams has a team with capable post scoring ability (every year except 2012-13), three-point shooting will not be a huge part of the offensive game plan. And for those who worry that opposing defenses will pack it in and force more long-range bombs from the Tar Heels, don’t count on it. Williams has stated multiple times that his philosophy is not to take “what the defense gives us,” but rather to be persistent enough to “take the shots we want to take.”

2. Even if North Carolina doesn’t shoot a lot of threes, do they need to make more of them? The answer to this is probably yes. The chart below shows how North Carolina has ranked nationally in three-point attempt percentage, three-point accuracy, and in overall offense (Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency) during the Roy Williams era. While the Tar Heels consistently rank low in three-point attempts, there seems to be some correlation between three-point accuracy and the team’s overall offensive rating. This tells us that while long-range shooting is not likely to be a big part of the team’s offense, shooting a decent percentage from deep may be the difference between having a relatively good offense (like last year, at #48 nationally) and having an outstanding top-10 caliber offense.

UNC 3ptShooting Last 11 Years

3. Other than Paige, who will make enough threes to achieve offensive balance? Last season only Paige and Leslie McDonald put up more than the 36 threes that J.P. Tokoto attempted. That number from Tokoto is easily the lowest number of attempts from the third most active three-point shooter in any of the past five North Carolina seasons (see table below). With the departure of McDonald from the team, it appears that Paige is the only returning Tar Heel who will be (and should be) launching shots from deep. That means that probably one or two members of the highly regarded freshmen class will have to fill that void. The best candidates appear to be forward Justin Jackson, who is said to posess a natural scoring touch that may extend to the three-point line, and/or point guard Joel Berry. Berry is known as more of a pass-first type play-maker, but most talent evaluators thought he was at least a capable jump shooter as well. And remember, if the offense executes like Roy Williams wants, both Jackson and Berry may only need to combine to make two or three deep shots per game. That would probably be enough to keep the defenses honest.

UNC Last 5 Yrs 3s

In summary, North Carolina will not be a prolific outside shooting team this year, but that does not necessarily mean that its offense can’t be outstanding. The Heels will need a couple of newcomers to occasionally hit an open jumper, and certainly any injury to Paige would be devastating. But otherwise, look for the Tar Heels to be just fine offensively this season. Part of the reason will be replacing the possessions of departed forward James Michael McAdoo, a notoriously bad free throw shooter (54% last year) and a below average two-point shooter (47%). Most of those possessions are likely to go to big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, as well as the aforementioned Jackson. Both Johnson and Meeks made over 55 percent of their twos last season, and Jackson’s highly-efficient scoring reputation is similar to what we heard about last year’s ACC Player of the Year, N.C. State’s T.J. Warren, when Warren was set to join the college ranks. A bigger concern for this North Carolina team may be free throw shooting, even without McAdoo dropping the overall average. With all the frontcourt talent on hand this year, the Tar Heels will probably get to the free throw line more often and will need to convert much better than last year’s squad, which shot horribly (62.6%) from the stripe. And it wasn’t all McAdoo’s doing, as the trio of Johnson, Meeks and Tokoto were all below the team average as well. This is another area where the freshmen may make a positive impact — if they do so in both free throw and three-point shooting efficiency, opposing defenses will be in for a really tough time stopping this team.

Brad Jenkins (383 Posts)

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