Even if it’s only for one game, or two, the challenge of being without Joel Berry “is a big one,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday, and he was trying to figure out how to fill Berry’s place in the starting lineup, if only for this brief stretch without him.
Berry, the junior point guard, won’t play on Wednesday night when the Tar Heels (8-1) face Davidson (5-2) . He suffered a sprained ankle during a 95-50 victory on Sunday against Radford, and the injury might keep him out against Tennessee on Sunday, too.
Which leaves Williams with a couple of options: He could insert Nate Britt, a senior who has started periodically throughout his four seasons, into the starting lineup. Or Williams could call on Seventh Woods, the freshman who arrived at UNC amid considerable hype.
“I haven’t decided,” Williams said when asked if Woods would make his first college start on Wednesday night. “You can go two ways, and throw him out there and say ‘sink or swim’ or you can try to feed him a little bit, get him a little bit (of time). ... And so I don’t know where we are now.”
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Williams knows this much, at least: It has, at times, been a struggle for the 6-2, 180-pound Woods. In his own words, Woods said on Sunday that he has been “getting pretty frustrated” during the first month of his freshman season.
The speed of the game has been challenging, for one. And then just understanding how to run the Tar Heels’ offense, which isn’t as simple as it might seem. When properly executed, Williams’ offense is known for its flow and its rhythm and for its ability to generate points in a hurry.
And beneath the highlights is a lot of nuance. Woods has been learning on the fly, or trying to, since practice began in early October.
“For me, at least, the most difficult part is just I feel like I’m thinking too much,” Woods said on Sunday. “Trying not to do the wrong thing and I end up doing the wrong thing, because I’m not just playing basketball. I’m trying to multitask and think, and then do what I do. And it’s really hard doing that.”
The transition to from high school to college would be difficult for any point guard, in any offense. At UNC, though, the challenge is magnified because of the freedom Williams allows his point guards, and because of their responsibilities in directing not only the offense but the defense, too.
For me, at least, the most difficult part is just I feel like I’m thinking too much.
UNC guard Seventh Woods
Other positions are more confining. Tony Bradley, the freshman forward, arrived at UNC with a more limited role: scoring in the post, rebounding missed shots. Woods’ checklist, meanwhile, is significantly longer.
“With Seventh, on every possession, you’ve got to call the defense,” Williams said. “On every possession, you’ve got to call the offense that we’re in, whether it’s secondary break or open or box, or whatever, and what are we going to do. And some of it you call it verbally.
“And some of it you call it by your actions. Now you’re calling the play where they’re not lined up the play that you called. I mean, mentally it’s a difference between night and day. I think that’s that (way) for a lot of point guards in a lot of situations, but I give the point guard so much freedom.”
Which is why, perhaps, Williams described Wednesday night as “sink or swim” time for Woods. Even if he doesn’t start, his role will expand in Berry’s absence – however long that absence lasts.
Berry suffered his sprained ankle against Radford with about 17 ½ minutes remaining. Woods played the majority of the rest of the half until leaving the game for good with about 90 seconds to play, UNC’s victory long secure.
When he first entered the game after Berry left it, Woods played with characteristic unease. He committed two turnovers in less than 30 seconds. Eventually his nerves calmed. He began simply playing – the environment, with a 30-point lead, was stress free – and yet Williams is waiting to see the player he recruited.
“There’s still a Seventh out there that nobody’s seen yet,” Williams said. “That I’ve seen that nobody else has, that no one has seen in a North Carolina uniform. There’s a guy there that I haven’t seen yet.”
Through his first nine college games, Woods has played an average of 12 minutes per game. He’s averaging three points, and has more turnovers (16) than assists.
At times it’s clear he’s thinking – instead of playing – as much as he said he is. In other moments he has provided glimpses of that old high school highlight tape that garnered so much attention – the one with 14.6 million views, and counting, on YouTube. It’s from Woods’ freshman year of high school. The headline of the video is: “Seventh Woods is THE BEST 14 Year Old in the Country!”
A long time ago someone showed it to Williams. He said he watched four of five plays.
“And it was the same thing over and over – he was jumping and dunking it every way,” Williams said.
Could that sort of thing, so much attention at an early age, create unnecessary pressure? Williams didn’t dismiss the thought, and yet he remembered that Kendall Marshall, the point guard who rewrote UNC’s records for assists, was once considered the best sixth-grader in the country.
“What the blankety-blank does that mean?” Williams asked. “But he handled it pretty well, and Seventh will handle it well, too.”
It’s not the attention or expectations that are bothering Woods, Williams said, but instead “just getting acclimated to the college game” – to the speed of it, and the size of the players surrounding him. And now, on Wednesday, brings his greatest opportunity yet to adapt, learn and become more comfortable.