CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce know they can’t take long to adapt to new roles as graduate transfers at North Carolina.
That’s because the Tar Heels need immediate help after losing their top five scorers. And while touted freshman Cole Anthony figures to take a leading role at the point, the Tar Heels took an unusual step by bringing in Keeling from Charleston Southern and Pierce from William & Mary for one year. They each boast roughly 90 games of experience at the mid-major level.
“I think we kind of are able to maybe pick up concepts a little faster than maybe most freshmen across the country because we’ve been in the game for three or four years now,” Pierce said Wednesday during UNC’s preseason media day. “I think the adjustment from a mid-major (program) to a high major is a lot easier than high school to high major.”
The additions are hardly the norm for a Roy Williams-coached team at North Carolina. There had been only two graduate transfers previously in his first 16 seasons, the first being big man Justin Knox’s arrival from Alabama for the 2010-11 season after UNC had an unexpected talent drain in the frontcourt.
The other was Cameron Johnson, who graduated from Pittsburgh then spent the past two years on the wing for the Tar Heels before becoming an NBA late-lottery draft pick in June.
Now Johnson is gone. So, too, is one-and-done point guard Coby White – also an NBA lottery pick. Fellow starters Luke Maye and defensive-minded guard Kenny Williams were seniors last year, and the Tar Heels lost top reserve Nassir Little – another one-and-done player who was a first-round pick.
That quintet combined to account for 77.3% percent of the team’s scoring and 64.6% of its rebounding last year, with junior forward Garrison Brooks being the leading returner in both categories (7.9 points, 5.6 rebounds).
Additionally, the Tar Heels also saw reserve point guard Seventh Woods transfer to South Carolina for his final season to further deplete UNC’s depth.
That’s why Roy Williams had a chuckle and a short answer when asked what made Keeling and Pierce the right fit: “Need.”
Keeling, a 6-3, 180-pound guard, showed a scoring knack, the willingness to rebound and athleticism while at Charleston Southern of the Big South Conference. He led the Bucs in scoring, rebounding and assists in each of the past two years, averaging 18.7 points and 6.9 rebounds last season.
He also made 81 3-pointers and shot 38% from behind the arc, an area where the Tar Heels need help after the losses of Johnson, White, Maye and Williams.
“We’ve played against some high-major teams, played on the Division I level, so we know what to expect,” Keeling said. “We know how the ups and downs of a season can go. It can help the younger guys or the less-experienced guys.”
The 6-7 Pierce averaged 14.9 points and 8.9 rebounds at William & Mary of the Colonial Athletic Association, with the rebounding total the best for a Tribe player since 1996. He also shot 41.6% from 3-point range as a sophomore, though he struggled with his outside shot last year after recovering from a broken wrist.
Williams said Pierce’s rebounding could offer the most help for the Tar Heels, calling him “a sneaky kind of rebounder that goes in and gets his hands on a lot of balls.”
Yet it’s their experience could prove just as valuable for a team that will have to lean on Anthony and a top-10 national recruiting class after losing so many players in leading roles. Freshman big man Armando Bacot said the graduate transfers are “mature, smart players” who are always giving advice through preseason, even as they adjust to a new program themselves.
As Pierce put it, the graduate transfers are “battle-tested.”
“At the end of the day, we’ve logged tons of minutes, tons of games at the college level,” Pierce said. “I think our experience is going to really show for this team this year.”
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