Two games into his freshman season a universal truth is emerging about Tony Bradley, the North Carolina forward, and though it was suspected before he ever played a college game, his debut has crystallized what everyone is certain is coming.
“Tony’s going to be a very good player for us,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said on Sunday after his team’s 97-57 victory against Chattanooga, a win in which Bradley, with 12 points, was among six Tar Heels who scored in double figures.
Over and over, Bradley’s teammates said what Williams said, essentially. They talked about his offense, his knack for finding the right spot on the court.
“He definitely has a feel for the game,” said Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward. “I think he definitely is in the right positions in the right spots.
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They talked about Bradley’s defense, the part of his game that’s earliest in its development.
“Once he gets it, when he’s not thinking and he’s just playing,” said Isaiah Hicks, another senior forward, “the dude can average probably like three to four blocks a game.”
Mostly, they just talked about the future. About what UNC has in Bradley, who grew up in Bartow, Fla., dreaming, he said after his team’s victory on Sunday, of playing at UNC.
“He’s going to be a big-time player for us once the year goes on,” said Joel Berry, the junior guard.
Going to be? Two games into his time at UNC (2-0), Bradley already has been “big time,” to put it the way Berry did. He scored 10 points in 17 minutes during his college debut, the Tar Heels’ 95-75 victory against Tulane in New Orleans on Friday night.
In his second game, against Chattanooga on Sunday, Bradley finished with those 12 points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes, all the while keeping pace in the Tar Heels’ frenetic offense. It’s an offense that depends on players’ ability to run – or sprint, as Williams would have it – without tiring.
That’s what Williams requires. That’s what Bradley’s teammates have emphasized to him, repeatedly.
“Just keep running the floor,” Meeks said, repeating what he’s so often told Bradley. “No matter what happens, just keep doing what coach says, and everything will be fine.”
The burly Meeks, at 6 feet 10 and 260 pounds, has sometimes found that challenging. It took awhile for the departed Brice Johnson, an All-ACC forward a season ago, to find the appropriate pace that Williams desires.
Bradley, though, appears to be a natural. He moves up and down the floor with fluid ease, a characteristic that Williams noticed the first time he ever watched Bradley.
That was during the summer between Bradley’s junior and senior year of high school. Williams had traveled to Chicago to watch a high school basketball tournament that included Brandon Ingram, who eventually chose to play at Duke. One of Ingram’s teammates was Bradley.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Williams said of Bradley. “But I kept seeing this big guy really run the floor and I told coach Rob, I said, ‘I like that guy.’ ”
Not long after, Steve Robinson, the UNC assistant coach, gave Bradley a call. Bradley said on Sunday that he “had no idea” that UNC was interested in recruiting him before then, but he was aware, at least, that Williams and Robinson were watching that day in Chicago.
“I remember that like yesterday,” Bradley said, beaming. “... I just played my hardest and maybe I had a good game that game.”
It was a day, it turns out, that is likely to continue to pay dividends for UNC. Who knows how long Bradley might stick around in college but, as long as he does, it looks like Williams will have the kind of player who most often makes his offense thrive.
The Tar Heels’ practices, Bradley said, have been “way harder” than the games. Which isn’t too surprising, perhaps, given that Bradley has made the transition from high school to college look easy. At least for now. It’s early yet.
Far more difficult games are ahead for UNC, which trailed early on Sunday and throughout most of the first 13 minutes. Chattanooga, the favorite to repeat as Southern Conference champion, won 29 games last year and appeared in the NCAA tournament as a No. 12 seed. The Mocs didn’t appear fazed early.
UNC, though, seized control late in the first half. Bradley played a small part during the Tar Heels’ surge.
His three-point play with about five minutes remaining before halftime extended UNC’s lead from two points to five. Moments later his defensive rebound began a sequence that ended with Kenny Williams’ 3-pointer, and the Tar Heels were on their way to building an 11-point halftime lead that quickly grew.
Like in the opener, the list of positives was long for UNC. Berry’s scoring, and efficiency in the running the offense. The 26 turnovers that UNC forced, which led to 33 points. And again, Bradley’s play was among the most encouraging signs, a glimpse of what Williams and others are certain is coming.