For about half of North Carolina’s practices the past two days – an hour each day – Jackson Simmons, the 6-foot-7 reserve forward, wasn’t Jackson Simmons at all but instead an actor on the Tar Heels’ brightest and most important stage to this point.
And so he tried to play his part as effectively as possible, tried to get the post moves just right but, more important, tried to emulate what Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin’s 7-foot-center, can do on the perimeter.
“Obviously,” Simmons said with smile Wednesday inside the Tar Heels’ locker room at the Staples Center, “he’s a little bit taller than me.”
No matter, though.
Simmons gave UNC’s post players – Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James, their best look, or rather their closest look, at what it might be like to guard Kaminsky. Perhaps nothing about UNC’s game against Wisconsin in an NCAA tournament West Regional semifinal will be as challenging as defending Kaminsky, who’s among the frontrunners for national player of the year.
Inside their locker room, the Tar Heels’ post players spoke with admiration and reverence for Kaminsky. He’s a player, they said, unlike any they’d faced this season.
“I guess he can be a mix of Jahlil down low and Portis from the outside, if you want to say that” Hicks said, comparing Kaminsky to Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, the ACC Player of the Year, and Arkansas’ Bobby Portis, the SEC Player of the Year. “Because Portis was stepping out, shooting a couple of threes. Driving and all that, and Jahlil – he just scores inside at will.
“So you can probably mix them two, you get Frank right there.”
UNC fared well, mostly, against Portis in its victory against Arkansas on Saturday in the round of 32. The more mobile Portis easily passed Meeks for a layup on the first play of the game and scored 18 points, but missed 10 of his final 14 shots from the field.
Kaminsky, though, is a more effective shooter and better dribbler. His ability to penetrate challenges bigger defenders in a multitude of ways – not least of which is avoiding fouls while trying to guard him. The Tar Heels, Johnson especially, have been prone to foul trouble this season.
Down the hall from UNC’s locker room, Wisconsin gathered inside the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room. Kaminsky, who sat inside Kobe Bryant’s locker while he spoke with reporters, talked with a tone of casual boredom about the numerous ways teams have tried to defend him. It was as if he’d seen everything before.
“I’ve seen a lot,” he said. “I’ve seen smaller guys guarding me, and then when I touch the ball someone throws a double team. We’ve seen a lot of zones, we’ve seen some matchup zones, we’ve seen box-and-ones, triangle-and-two.
“We’ve seen it all.”
And throughout it all, usually, Kaminsky has delivered. James, the reserve forward, said the concern surrounding Kaminsky isn’t so much about what he can do down low but what he’s capable of doing on the outside, where the game’s biggest players usually dare not go.
That’s territory that most post players – including every one of them on UNC’s roster – don’t have much experience roaming.
“If he gets in the post, I feel like I can handle him no problem in the post,” James said. “But the fact that he can stretch the floor out and shoot 3s – that also brings another dynamic to his game.”
Kaminsky has made at least one 3-pointer in 18 of his team’s 36 games. Six times, he has made at least three 3s.
Earlier in the week, UNC coach Roy Williams had said he hoped freshman guard Joel Berry might grow 8 inches so that he could guard Kaminsky. That didn’t happen and the Tar Heels could be without Meeks, who suffered a knee sprain late in the victory against Arkansas.
Williams said Wednesday that UNC would attempt to deal with Kaminsky in a way he described would be “very, very seriously.”
“One of the big guys is going to have to be able to get out there and guard him, and we may end up going small some as we did against Arkansas,” Williams said. “And a lot of that also depends on how healthy Kennedy is. I don’t want to just say, ‘Well, nobody can guard Frank, so let’s play small.’ Because that takes away part of our game as our inside scoring.”
Double-teaming Kaminsky is unlikely, too, James said, because of UNC’s concern over Wisconsin’s other perimeter players. Four of its players, including Kaminsky, have made at least 37 percent of their 3-point attempts this season.
Jackson, the Tar Heels’ reserve forward, attempted his share of shots while he played the role of Kaminsky in practice. That’s part of the fun of it, he said – the chance to pretend to be the other team’s most influential player.
Jackson in practices this season has also played the part of Duke’s Okafor, and Louisville’s Montrezl Harrell.
“Guys who are a lot different than me,” he said.
Now on Thursday night, his teammates will take their turn against the real thing. How they fare could decide whether their season lives on or ends out west, two victories away from reaching the Final Four.
Projected starting lineups
G Bronson Koenig 8.6 ppg, 2.4 apg
G Josh Gasser 6.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg
F Nigel Hayes 12.6 ppg, 6.4 rpg
F Sam Dekker 13.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg
C Frank Kaminsky 18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg
North Carolina (26-11)
G Marcus Paige 14.2 ppg, 4.5 apg
G Justin Jackson 10.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg
F J.P. Tokoto 8.5 ppg, 5.6 rpg
F Brice Johnson 13.1 ppg, 7.9 rpg
F Joel James 2.4 ppg, 1.9 rpg