No. 2 Maryland and No. 9 North Carolina combined for one of the best games of the early college basketball season on Tuesday, with the Tar Heels pulling away late to win 89-81. The game was even more interesting from a draft perspective, as there were NBA prospects matched up with each other at every position on the floor. Games like that are where you can get a really good feel for how players will transition to the NBA level because that’s the closest they will get to the NBA before they actually get there. The floor is more compact because there are NBA-caliber athletes everywhere so the passing lanes are tighter, the driving lanes are smaller and the windows to make plays close a lot quicker.
With that in mind, here’s a quick breakdown of some of the things we learned on Tuesday:
1.) Melo Trimble needs to be tighter with the basketball
There’s a lot to like about the sophomore PG’s game and he exploded with a 23-point, 12-rebound performance on only 14 shots. At 6’3 190, he has ideal size for the position and he has the handle and the explosiveness to go anywhere he wants on the court. He can stroke 3’s off the dribble, make every pass in the book and he already has a great feel for the two-man game. The main thing he needs to improve is valuing the basketball - he had 8 turnovers against UNC and Maryland’s inability to take care of the ball (22 turnovers) was the biggest reason why they lost. If Trimble can put everything together over the course of the season, he could rise rapidly on draft boards.
2.) Marcus Paige looks 100 percent
Paige apparently didn’t need any time to get comfortable, as he played extremely well in his first game back from a broken hand that kept him out of the first few weeks of the season. He had 20 points and 5 assists and he was making plays all over the court - running off screens and knocking 3’s off the dribble and scoring on a variety of ingenious floaters in the paint. His quick hands and defensive energy also bothered Trimble on the other side of the ball and he was a huge factor in getting UNC easy baskets in transition. A guy with Paige’s size (6’1 175) doesn’t have a lot of margin for error when it comes to playing at the next level but he has a chance to make a roster as a change of pace combo guard who can fill it up if he can continue to play at this level.
3.) UNC found shooting from someone besides Paige
The big storyline for the Tar Heels over the last few seasons has been the inability of anyone else but Paige to threaten the defense from beyond the three-point line. With no one else capable of stretching the floor, there was no room for Paige to drive the ball and no space for the UNC big men to operate in the paint. The perimeter shooting of Nate Britt, Joel Berry, Joel Jackson and Theo Pinson is going to be huge for the Tar Heels this season and they combined to go 5-8 on Tuesday. If they are making shots, UNC can beat anyone in the country.
4.) Maryland probably should have went smaller earlier
One of the reasons for the jaw-dropping number of turnovers that the Terrapins committed was that there just wasn’t a lot of space on the floor with Mark Turgeon electing to go with two traditional big men for most of the game. It wasn’t until the game was nearly over that he went with Jake Layman at the 4 and you saw Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon have a much easier time of getting into the UNC defense. Maryland has a lot of good big men but not spreading the floor is a form of unilateral disarmament that Turgeon shouldn’t be so quick to agree to.
5.) Jake Layman can’t hang on the perimeter
Layman’s numbers are down from last season in large part because he is playing more as a SF, where he gives up his advantage in quickness and gains an advantage in size that is hard to utilize with two big men camped out in the lane. On the other side of the ball, he has no real chance against guys like Jackson and Pinson, who could take him off the dribble whenever they wanted. His only real chance to play at the next level is as a small-ball 4 but games like this make you wonder whether he becomes a victim of the ever growing trend towards ultra small-ball. Instead of playing a hybrid forward like Layman at the 4 why not just play a 3 at the 4 like Justin Jackson? Unless Layman is going to make up the difference on the boards and in the post, what benefit does his extra size actually give you?
6.) Justin Jackson continues to impress
Jackson didn’t have a big game statistically in Paige’s first game back but he filled up the stat-sheet - 9 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 block and 5 steals on 7 shots - and showed the type of all-around game that could allow him to carve out a spot in an NBA rotation pretty quickly. The big thing for him is going to be continuing to improve his three-point shot because he’s probably never going to be a primary option at the next level and making 3’s is pretty much a must for secondary perimeter options in the modern NBA.
7.) Robert Carter III might have a future as a small-ball 5
The transfer from Georgia Tech doesn’t get a ton of publicity on a loaded Maryland team but he has an extremely well-rounded game that allows him to contribute in multiple areas. A generation ago, he would have instantly projected as a high-post PF but with the league continuing to move away from size he might be most valuable as a small-ball C. At 6’9 235 with a 7’2 wingspan, he has the size to hold up in the post, the athleticism to play above the rim (4 blocks on Tuesday) and the ability to step out and knock down jumpers (1-3 from 3), put the ball on the floor and finish in the paint. Line-ups with Carter at the 5 and Layman at the 4 are going to be awfully hard to stop at the NCAA level and they look a lot like what NBA teams want to do with their frontcourt, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
8.) Diamond Stone might need a little time
The flip side of moving guys like Carter down a position is that it creates fewer spots for more traditional 5’s like Stone, a highly-touted five-star recruit who most people have projected as a one-and-done lottery pick. Stone has a lot of game and he can score the ball a number of different ways in the post but he doesn’t have the type of jaw-dropping athleticism that should instantly translate to the next level and he has a ton of work to do when it comes to defending in space against NBA-caliber athletes. Big men who know how to bang in the post will always be valuable but if they can’t contain penetration in the two-man game they are almost unplayable at the next level the way the league is trending. There’s plenty to like about Stone but he’s not making an NBA team better right now and there’s no pressing need for him to play at the next level until he has done a lot of refining.
9.) Theo Pinson is showing things
Pinson might need another year at UNC until after Paige graduates and he is given control of the offense but the combination of skills he is showing off the bench as a sophomore is very impressive. At 6’6 195 with a 6’11 wingspan, he is long and athletic and incredibly crafty with the ball in his hands. He can get into the lane pretty easily and he has a great feel for when to dump the ball off to one of the big men, kick it out to a shooter or take the shot himself. If he can shoot upwards of 40% from 3 and average 5 assists a game all season, he is going to be a very rich man one day.
10.) Rasheed Sulaimon may play his way back into the league
A guy who was widely projected as a first-round pick when he first established himself at Duke has slowly played his way off draft boards thanks to putting up worse stats every season before eventually being kicked off the team. Now playing as a senior at Maryland, he appears to have re-found himself playing off the ball next to Trimble and that’s the type of role he could carve out for himself in the NBA. He could be like a poor man’s version of Gary Harris - using his size (6’4 195 with a 6’7 wingspan) to harass smaller guards on defense and then spotting up and being a secondary playmaker off a bigger wing who could run the offense. The difficult part, of course, is that he’s already the same age as Harris and there aren’t a lot of Emmanuel Mudiay types running around at any level of basketball.