Roy Williams, at least for now, won’t be mistaking this North Carolina team for some of the best shooting teams he can remember.
“It’s no comparison to 2009,” Williams said on Friday, referencing a national championship team that had enviable balance – Tyler Hansbrough on the inside and Wayne Ellington, among others, capable of making shots on the perimeter. “It’s no comparison to 2005. It’s no comparison to 2011 or ’12.”
Yet is Williams more accepting of his players taking the outside shot this season than he has been in a while? Is he more comfortable, from his vantage point on the sideline, when he watches one of his guys pull up from behind the 3-point line?
“Yeah, I think so,” said Williams, whose team on Saturday plays at Texas. “At one point it was just Marcus (Paige) – (he was) the only one that I was comfortable with. But Joel’s shown that he can make some. Nate’s shown that he can make some. Theo’s shown that he can make some.”
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Entering the season it was clear that No. 3 UNC would be most reliant, again, on Paige to provide offense on the perimeter. The question was how much fellow guards Joel Berry and Nate Britt and Theo Pinson – and forward Justin Jackson – would complement Paige on the outside.
So far they have answered favorably. Through eight games UNC appears to have its most capable outside shooting team since the 2012-13 season, when Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston led an offense that accounted for 272 3-pointers – an average of about 7.5 per game.
Bullock, a junior on that team, left for the NBA after that season. And Hairston never played another college game amid an impermissible benefits case that jeopardized, and then caused him to lose, his college eligibility.
7.5 UNC 3-pointers per game in 2012-13
4.3 UNC 3 pointers per game in 2013-14
4.8 UNC 3 pointers per game in 2014-15
6.4 UNC 3 pointers per game so far this season
That left Paige, a sophomore during the 2013-14 season, as the Tar Heels’ only proven outside shooter. And he was again last season.
After the Tar Heels averaged 7.5 made 3-pointers per game during the 2012-13 season, they averaged 4.3 3-pointers per game during the 2013-14 season, and 4.8 3-pointers last year. Through eight games this season, though, UNC is experiencing something of a perimeter renaissance.
The Tar Heels are averaging 6.4 3-pointers through the first four weeks of the season. Five times they’ve made at least seven 3s, after making that many in eight games all of last season.
UNC is shooting only a marginally-better percentage from the outside than it had in recent years. It has made 35.9 percent of its 3-point attempts this season – an improvement of one-tenth of a percentage point from last season.
The difference now is Paige isn’t UNC’s only capable shooter. And Williams is less likely to cringe when someone other than Paige attempts a 3.
Britt, after changing his shooting hand before the start of last season, has emerged as a confident outside shooter. And Berry, who made 17 3-pointers all of last year amid an injury-marred freshman season, has already made 15 3s this season.
Of all those who have made significant strides with their outside shot – a group that includes Berry and Pinson, two sophomores, and Britt, a junior – Britt’s improvement might be most noticeable. He is making 48.1 percent of his 3-pointers and already has made half as many 3s (13) as he did last season.
That Britt is more comfortable and confident with his right-handed shot – a year after making the switch from shooting left-handed – undoubtedly has something to do with his improvement. Williams, though, attributes most of Britt’s development to “sweat.”
Or, in other words, to the time Britt has spent in the gym, hoisting shot after shot. Sometimes it was at night, with Britt alone. Other times it was before or after a workout.
“If you ask everybody on our team, and I think I said this the other day, the two guys that shot more basketball in the off-season than anybody was Nate and Joel Berry,” Williams said. “And I think the proof is there.”
Mechanically, Williams’ said, Britt’s shot is much more sound than it was. He arrived at UNC with what Williams described as “a blip” and “a hitch” in his shot.
When Britt attempted 3-pointers with his left hand, he used to bring the ball up sideways. The change in shooting hands allowed him to straighten his motion and improve his mechanics.
And, overall, UNC’s improved shooting has allowed the Tar Heels’ offense to operate more effectively and find more balance. Three seasons ago, when Hairston and Bullock combined to make 177 3-pointers, the Tar Heels weren’t as balanced as they are now. They lacked a consistent scoring threat on the interior.
Now they have at least two, with senior forward Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, a junior. And the better Paige and the guards shoot on the outside, the better it is on the inside for Johnson and Meeks on the inside.
And “vice versa,” Meeks said on Friday.
“When we’re doing good in the post,” he said, “it opens the perimeter shots up. I just think it creates off of each other. I think they’re doing a great job shooting.”
UNC is doing a better job, more often, than it has in awhile. This isn’t one of Williams’ best shooting teams, he said. The Tar Heels aren’t as prolific from the outside as they were during their national championship seasons.
But they have more options than they’ve had in a while from behind the 3-point line. And Paige, for the first time since his freshman season, has significant, consistent help on the perimeter.