‘No question’ UNC’s freshmen are special

The Tar Heels’ three first-year players aren’t as celebrated as the rookie class up the road at Duke, but Roy Williams is excited about his group’s potential

UNC freshman Nassir Little practices during the Tar Heels’ media day on Oct. 9 in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

Duke freshmen R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones and Joey Baker have received a lot of attention heading into the rapidly approaching college basketball season.

And for good reason, since they’re the consensus top-rated recruiting class in the country.

But they’re not the only newcomers of note in the Triangle.

Though they’ve arrived with much less fanfare, at least for their talents on the court, the trio of Nassir Little, Coby White and Rechon “Leaky” Black has a chance to make just as significant an impact on a North Carolina team with its own championship aspirations.

“The first thing you love is that they are talented,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said at his team’s preseason media day recently. “They are gifted, there is no question about that.

“Their talent, their work ethic, mental preparation … they did a great job in summer school, got very good grades. So I don’t worry about that. That put me at ease. And I know they are going to be able to step up and play for us. There are no negatives whatsoever.”

Little, a 6-foot-7 wing already being projected as a top-10 pick in next spring’s NBA Draft, is the crown jewel of Williams’ first post-NCAA investigation class. He may be best known, at least for the time being, as a player whose name was prominently mentioned in the ongoing Adidas corruption trial — though he was eventually exonerated by evidence presented in the case.

A preseason Julius Erving Award candidate, Little is expected to step right in and give the Tar Heels the kind of explosive, athletic presence they’ve been lacking at least since Harrison Barnes wore Carolina Blue, if not longer.

White is a 6-4 combo guard from Goldsboro who will eventually be the team’s primary ballhandler after a high school career in which he was the most prolific scorer in state high school history while Black is a still improving 6-7 jack-of-all-trades with a skill set similar to that of the recently graduated Theo Pinson.

All three are expected to play major roles in their rookie seasons. But unlike their freshman counterparts at Duke, they won’t be under as much pressure to carry their team thanks to a roster featuring three senior starters and numerous other returning veterans.

“You know in the back of your mind that you have three seniors who have played a lot of basketball, averaged in double figures, you’ve asked them to play in big moments. So they know what that is,” Williams said of All-American Luke Maye, forward Cam Johnson and shooting guard Kenny Williams.

“You’ve got three freshmen who are very gifted and give you the new enthusiasm that I always talk about. And the guys in between, you hope that they have gotten better. It’s a good mix.”

Almost as important as the way their basketball skills mesh together with the core of returning talent is the chemistry the freshmen develop with their older teammates.

UNC fans are all too familiar with how dysfunctional a team can become when a group of brash youngsters doesn’t get along with a team full of established veterans already set in their roles. It’s the kind of situation that plagued the Tar Heels throughout the 1993-94 season.

So far, though, it appears as though the newcomers have made a smooth transition both in the locker room and on the court. They’ve already made a positive impression through their performance in UNC’s two exhibition games in the Bahamas this summer and the early portion of preseason camp.

“They are definitely moving a lot faster than we were as freshmen, being able to pick up things, like Coby at the point guard position,” sophomore big man Sterling Manley said. “Playing point guard for coach (Williams) can be tough because he likes to get up and down. But at the same time, you have to be able to run the team. So Coby being able to pick things up quickly and go on the flow.

“Leaky will be able to play one through four, that is very versatile. It is almost like he is a little Theo. Once he gets his passes like Theo, he will be unstoppable. And then Nas, just his athleticism and just being that slasher guy. He is kind of that betweener-guy, he can play this position, he can play that position. He plays above the rim. They are a good class and they are great to play around.”