Why Tony Bradley’s departure is a win-win-win for him, UNC

Tony Bradley’s departure from North Carolina leaves the Tar Heels with a good-news, bad-news scenario, one that will hurt them in the short-term and one that just might provide multiple long-term benefits.

First the bad for the Tar Heels, which is obvious enough: Had he returned, the 6-11 Bradley, known for his deft touch around the basket, would have undoubtedly become the focal point of UNC’s low-post offense. He would have played a leading, starring role, perhaps similar to the ones Brice Johnson and Tyler Zeller excelled in during recent seasons.

The loss of Bradley, who averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds during his freshman season, leaves a considerable on-court void. In his absence, UNC returns no natural post players – Luke Maye can play down low, but he’s also perimeter-oriented (as Kentucky likely remembers) – and now the Tar Heels will be reliant on three freshmen on the interior.

None of those freshmen – Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman (who played at Raleigh’s Word of God Academy) and Sterling Manley – are considered top-100 prospects, according to 247sports.com’s composite ranking, but now one of them, likely either Brooks or Huffman, will enter next season as a starter.

Without Bradley, expect the Tar Heels to be more perimeter-oriented than they’ve ever been under coach Roy Williams. UNC’s 2012-13 team, when Johnson was a still-very-raw freshman, might be a good comparison. Five of UNC’s top six scorers that season were guards, with the lone exception being James Michael McAdoo, who was a power forward and not in the mold of Johnson, Zeller or Kennedy Meeks.

UNC is likely to play a lot of small-ball next season – and the talent and depth is there to run as much as any of Williams’ teams ever have – but the starting lineup entering next season is likely to be:

PG Joel Berry

SG Kenny Williams

SF Theo Pinson

PF Luke Maye

C Garrison Brooks or Brandon Huffman

That’s a lineup that will have UNC nationally ranked in the preseason, and one that will be competitive in the top half of the ACC – and no Berry-led team should ever be counted out – but it’s not nearly as imposing of a starting five as UNC would have had if Bradley decided to return for his sophomore season. So the downside of losing Bradley is clear enough.

The upside? His departure breaks a long, perhaps discomforting (for coach Roy Williams) streak of not having a player leave after his freshman season for the NBA. For years, this has been used against Williams in recruiting: That players who go to UNC are unable to leave after their freshman seasons, that Williams somehow “forces” players to stay in school, etc.

Williams recently said such perceptions were “stupid.” He was speaking last week at the ACC spring meetings in Florida. Bradley hadn’t yet made his decision then, and Williams acknowledged that it could, in fact, be a positive for his program if Bradley were to leave after one season.

“No question,” Williams said. “You think about it: Why would I not want a guy to go? I mean, it’s just stupid. But yet, people have used that against us. But if a guy comes, and can go to the NBA, and be guaranteed – and this is the difference, because I do say you need to be in the first round. You shouldn’t just go.

“John Henson’s dad said it best, said it’s not how quickly you get there, it’s how ready you are when you get there. Because after two years, you could be out of the league. But it’s been used against us greatly, and I’ve always said I’d like to have one or two of those guys every year, but I’d like to have the rest of my guys that were planning on staying around.”

If Williams has any qualms with Bradley leaving, it’s likely just that: Bradley isn’t guaranteed to be a first-round selection. And because of that, he’s not a sure-thing to earn a lucrative NBA contract.

Even so, Bradley’s decision provides Williams and his coaching staff with proof that a player can come to UNC, win a national championship and leave after one season to enter the draft. Bradley did all of those things after playing a key role as a reserve on a national championship team.

To outsiders, Bradley’s choice might have come as a surprise – especially given that, had he returned next season, he could have worked himself into becoming a sure-thing lottery pick. It became more and more clear, though, that Bradley simply wanted to leave.

During a recent post-workout interview, posted here, Bradley told reporters that he considered himself a “stretch-four,” the common phrase that describes a power forward who can step out and shoot and drive from the perimeter. He spoke of his ability to “stretch the floor, handle the ball, shoot the 3.”

Bradley never showed those skills at UNC, but he made it sound as though that was because of a lack of opportunity rather than a lack of an ability to play the part.

“I’m definitely a stretch-four,” Bradley said during that interview. “I’m a stretch-four and I play the five, too. My game you saw at Carolina is completely different than what I’m going to play in the NBA.”

The comments lead to the natural question of whether Bradley, and/or those close to him, believed he wasn’t properly utilized at UNC. It’d be a difficult argument to make, given that the Tar Heels already had enough capable perimeter shooters last season – Berry and Justin Jackson, to name two – and because Bradley seemed to be such a natural in the post.

Big men who can shoot and dribble and drive are all the rage, and have been, in the NBA. And so part of Bradley’s commentary could have been a sales job, him trying to convince teams that he’s capable of thriving outside of the paint. But Bradley was right: His game at UNC was, and would have continued to be, “completely different” than those players who are considered stretch-fours.

While the downside is clear enough for UNC, this might be a win-win-win for all parties: Bradley wins for pursuing his NBA goal on his preferred timeline, and UNC wins twice – first for breaking the one-and-done drought, and then for moving on without a player who appeared to bristle at playing where the Tar Heels would have most needed him to play next season.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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