CHAPEL HILL — Joel James lumbered into the North Carolina players lounge, large packs of ice wrapped tightly around his knees in the moments after Saturday nights 78-53 victory against East Tennessee State.
Asked about the ice, James smiled.
These are just old man knees, he said.
It was an amusing line, given its contrast with reality. Nothing about the freshman forward is old man especially when it comes to basketball.
He only started playing the game during his sophomore year of high school and now, nine games into his collegiate career, James acknowledged he still is a victim of his youth and inexperience.
Im not tired or anything, James said of the pace, which he described as the most difficult part of the transition from high school to college. Its just so fast-paced sometimes my head spins a little. I feel like sometimes I can lose myself a little bit. But thats part of it.
He was speaking for himself, but he also could have been speaking for fellow freshman forward Brice Johnson, and Desmond Hubert, a sophomore forward who played sparingly a season ago. While four-fifths of UNCs starting lineup has remained consistent, Hubert, James and Johnson continue to vie for a starting role in the frontcourt.
The competition is as much external, played out during practices, as it is internal, in the minds of each player. Hubert, James and Johnson are battling with one another, but also with themselves and with their own doubts and questions about their roles, and how they can best adapt to them.
Im going through growing pains as a freshman, and so is Brice, James said. And Desmond is still going through growing pains coming in and playing a lot.
Those growing pains, as James put it, have been evident through the Tar Heels first nine games. During that stretch, James Michael McAdoo, the sophomore forward, has been by far UNCs most consistent frontcourt player.
But as productive as McAdoo has been he leads the Tar Heels with an average of 15 points per game he doesnt fit the mold of the traditional back-to-the-basket post player. During his tenure at UNC, coach Roy Williams often has built his offenses around a traditional low-post presence.
A history in the post
Tyler Zeller and John Henson played that role during the past few seasons and, before them, Tyler Hansbrough excelled. He came after Sean May helped lead the Tar Heels to the 2005 national championship. This UNC roster, though, lacks such a player. At least for now.
During the Tar Heels first nine games, Hubert, James and Johnson have taken turns starting alongside McAdoo. After the victory Saturday night, Williams said he was no closer than he was at the beginning of the season to identifying a permanent starter at center.
I am not settled on it, he said. The battle will continue. Because Im not sold on anybody.
Hubert, James and Johnson all are roughly the same height between 6-foot-9 and 6-10 but they vary widely in skill set and weight. Each of the three players also has encountered personal challenges that have hindered them early in the season.
Johnson, who weighs about 190 pounds and is the lightest of the trio, has been the most productive offensively. He is averaging 9.4 points in about 14 minutes per game, but playing sound defense hasnt come easily to him.
Back in high school, we didnt play that much man, he said, referring to UNCs defense, which is exclusively man-to-man. We played a lot of zone. So its been a little tougher adjustment to get back and play a lot of man here.
Johnson came off the bench Saturday night and finished with 12 points his fourth consecutive game in double figures. He had dunks on back-to-back possessions late in the first half, one of which came on an alley-oop from Leslie McDonald.
The Smith Center crowd roared in appreciation during those two moments, but Johnson didnt mention those plays when asked if he was satisfied with his progress.
Im not where I want to be, he said. I have to get a lot better.
Hubert, who has averaged just over a point per game, said the same for himself. He entered the season as the starter alongside McAdoo, but Hubert appeared skittish offensively.
He has played with a greater sense of calm during recent games but still has struggled to assert himself.
Just in practice and over the summer leading up to the season, I played so much better than I have been showing on the court in those first few games, Hubert said. I really didnt do much in those first few games compared to what Id been doing in practice. So it was kind of frustrating for me.
A lack of confidence
Hubert admitted Saturday that he lacked confidence early in the season. He rebuilt some of it when he scored six of UNCs first eight points in a dominant victory against Mississippi State in the Maui Invitational, and he had a crowd-pleasing dunk in the second half Saturday.
Moments like that have helped, Hubert said. So, too, have conversations with McAdoo, who endured a similar crisis of confidence during his freshman season.
He was kind of saying he went through the same thing last year the first half the season he kind of had a rough start and then towards the end he just kind of just picked it up, Hubert said. Its all about being confident in yourself. And thats what Ive been working on, just trying to stay positive no matter what happens.
Hopefully, eventually, Ill get it going.
Even amid his problems on offense, Hubert has remained in Williams favor because of his defensive ability. Defense also is part of the reason why James started Saturday for the second consecutive game.
James, who weighs about 270 pounds, is the Heels most physically imposing player. Of all the Tar Heels, McAdoo included, James is the most physically prepared to endure the rigors that come with playing in the post in the ACC.
Offensively, though, James is raw. And like Hubert, he has had difficulty asserting himself and taking shots.
I feel like Im learning, James said. Im a freshman. Im not expecting to go out there and be the Shaquille ONeal from LSU, just go out there and dominate a game. But every day is a process, every day is taking steps forward. Coach always says Rome wasnt built in a day. But it was worked on every day.
And so James, Johnson and Hubert continue to work and to compete. The Tar Heels are a work in progress in a several areas, but the development of the trio of inexperienced frontcourt players could play the largest role in UNCs future success or lack of it.
After his team attempted 31 3-pointers Saturday night, Williams stressed the need for better balance. McAdoo, James, Johnson and Hubert have combined to average 29.6 points per game which isnt that far from the 36.1 points per game that Zeller, Henson and McAdoo averaged a season ago.
The difference is that post production was a given then. Now, it almost is a bonus.
For so long, Williams knew what to expect from his interior players. Now there is so much uncertainty that he is not sure whom he might start. James learned he was starting Saturday when Williams wrote his name along with the other starters on a whiteboard 30 minutes before tip-off. He smiled at that but quickly tried to subdue his satisfaction.
UNC practiced Sunday but wont again until Thursday. And so the competition goes on to earn that final starting spot not that it is up to Williams.
Youve heard me say it before, he said. I dont choose who starts. They do. I just write the names up on the board.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter