Through the Tar Heels' first few games, the answer has actually been forward Brice Johnson. He may continue to be their best option while James and Meeks slowly grow into the position.
Both James and Meeks have steadily shown signs of development. James has started every game and averaged 4.0 points and 4.3 rebounds. Meeks’ numbers are slightly better off the bench with 6.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.
But it’s telling that in games against Holy Cross and Belmont, Williams went with Johnson at center for the deciding minutes. Alongside James Michael McAdoo at power forward, that has been the frontcourt tandem which has given the Heels an offensive boost whenever Williams has used them.
It’s no coincidence that Johnson and McAdoo happen to be UNC's most-experienced and skilled frontcourt players.
“It was effective last year when I did it for the first half of the season,” Johnson said. “Me and James Michael know how to play with each other. We know where to be at the right time or what pass to throw to each other. So that’s what makes that more effective for us.”
Just how effective? Johnson’s 66.7 shooting percent from the field leads the team among players with more than five attempts. He is the team’s third double-figures scorer with a 12.0 average despite not starting a game. (His 6.3 rebounds also ranked third on the team despite averaging just 19.0 minutes per game.)
Most importantly, Johnson hasn’t been a defensive liability in those games. In fact, Williams said he used Johnson against the Bruins because James and Meeks had trouble playing against smaller frontcourts that liked to move to the perimeter.
Johnson’s slight frame at 6-foot-9, 210 pounds makes it tough for him to defend a physical center. But most of the Heels’ nonconference slate is littered with teams that don’t play a true center.
That trend will continue against Richmond on Saturday and possibly Louisville on Sunday.
The Spiders have a smaller frontcourt rotation of Derrick Williams, who is listed as 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, Terry Allen, 6-foot-8, 235; Alonzo Nelson-Ododa, 6-foot-9, 210, and Deion Taylor, who is 6-foot-7, 200.
The trick for Williams in the rest of the nonconference schedule -- as long as P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are still sidelined -- will be balancing the need to develop James and Meeks and actually playing his best at the 5. At this point in the season, there’s no question Johnson is that option.