Being a backup player for the University of North Carolina is better than it is at many places.
Carolina was among the first programs to use depth as a weapon, and head coach Roy Williams never hesitates to go to his bench. And, unlike many places, there’s no stigma to being a reserve player at Carolina.
Once you put on that Carolina blue, you’re part of the family.
Just ask James Manor or Denzel Robinson.
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“The best part about being part of North Carolina basketball is the getting the opportunity to go to work with the best coaching staff and the best players in America,” say Robinson. “Being able to play the game of basketball at this North Carolina is unbelievable, and for the rest of my life I will be grateful for the opportunity.”
“The best part of being a member of the varsity team is becoming a part of the Carolina basketball family,” Manor says. “I know that term gets thrown around a lot, but we truly are like a family in the locker room.”
Manor can remember his trepidation at walking into the locker room, wondering how walk-ons fit into the equation.
“They were welcoming from the beginning and now we’re all pretty close. Not only that, but I know after I graduate I will always be a part of the basketball family,” Manor says.
The 6-6 Manor and 6-4 Robinson were teammates when they played for coach Tod Morgan at Chapel Hill High School.
“I was blessed to have them on our team. Our team went 8-14 in our first year together — their junior year — and then 15-8 and made a state playoff appearance in their senior year,” Morgan, now coaching at Pikeville Aycock, recalls of his tenure at Chapel Hill. “ They were a huge part of laying the foundation for the teams that went 22-5, 26-2, and 24-5 and ‘three-peat’ conference champions.”
Robinson, who was on the Chapel Hill team contemporaneously with UNC Charlotte’s Denzel Ingram, became known and DZ, while Ingram was DI. Manor drew the nickname “Big Games James” – “yes, a reference to former Tar Heel great ‘Big Game’ James Worthy. Morgan says.
Despite their high school success, and the likelihood they could have played elsewhere as stars. both Manor and Robinson opted to matriculate at Carolina with thoughts of making the varsity team. It didn’t hurt that Robinson’s father Steve is an assistant coach at UNC.
The pair worked their way onto the varsity by playing two years on the Carolina junior varsity team.
The JVs are yet another part of UNC that separates it from other college basketball programs. Roy Williams played on the UNC freshman team and later coached the JVs as one of his first jobs at Carolina under Dean Smith, and he’s well aware of the long tradition of looking for varsity additions from the walk-ons.
Nonetheless, reserve players like Manor and Robinson know they’re not likely to see a lot of playing time.
Manor played in 12 games as a junior and had four points and three rebounds. Robinson had two points and four rebounds last season. This year, they played in six of Carolina’s first 23 games, each getting seven minutes of court time.
Manor, ironically, leads the Tar Heels in shooting percentage (75 percent) and 3-point percentage (66). He nailed two 3-pointers in 1 minute of play in an 80-61 win against Clemson, making him 3-4 on shots from the field, 2-3 in treys.
It’s the little things like that which make all the hard work worthwhile.
“Coming out of high school, I never would have imagined that I would’ve ended up on the basketball team here, and I’m just thankful for the opportunity,” Manor says.