By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — On a North Carolina team with plenty of role players and few who seem to want to take charge, the emergence of Jeremiah Francis has been possibly season-saving.
When freshman Cole Anthony partially tore the meniscus in his right knee, Francis — who has been through well-documented challenges with two surgeries to his left knee — figured to be the guy to take over at point guard while Anthony recovered.
Few, other than possibly Francis himself, probably expected him to be not only effective but more efficient in some ways than Anthony. Francis not only pushes the pace better than Anthony (75.9 possessions per 40 minutes compared to 70.6), he has a better turnover percentage (15.8%-18.6%).
“I love Jeremiah for the toughness that he’s already shown,” Coach Roy Williams said. “The toughness on the basketball court is nothing compared to the toughness he’s already shown and how hard he’s worked.”
Francis admits that he’s surprised success has come so quickly.
“But I believe I was born to be a basketball player,” said Francis, whose parents both were Ohio State athletes, his mother competing in track and field and his dad playing basketball. “And God blessed me with this amazing talent that I have, and I was never doubting myself for what I could do. It doesn’t shock me too much. But I need to find my groove and I’m still learning. I just need to find my place and do my role to my best my ability.”
He showed that the big moments don’t intimidate him when he strongly drove to the basket and completed a huge 3-point play with 19 seconds left in UNC’s 70-67 win over Yale on Monday, and he added two more free throws. It just feels natural for stocky, 6-foot-tall guard, who got his first start in that game, to aggressively go the basket.
“It’s always been my game,” said Francis, who has 34 points, 15 assists, 8 turnovers, and 8 rebounds in 97 minutes this season. “Just trying to attack downhill, trying to get to the basket. It’s a high-percentage shot.”
Even then, it’s a learning process. As Williams pointed out, Francis may have been called for a foul had the Yale defender not had his foot on the no-charging-foul semicircle. Clearly, the coach delivered that message to his young star.
“It was a big play but sometimes you learn to stop and shoot the pullup,” Francis said. “It was a decisive call. They could’ve called the charge; but now I’m still learning.”
Sometimes his aggressiveness puts him too deep under the basket without good alternatives. But that’s part of the learning process. On one play against Yale, he was greeted with a double-team, and quickly made a pass to an open Garrison Brooks.
Senior guard Brandon Robinson, one Tar Heel who is trying to make the transition from role player to one of the primary scorers, appreciates what Francis brings to the court.
“I think he does a good job of attacking the paint, finding guys, getting them open and he just plays with that confidence and I love him for that,” Robinson said.
The secondary break traditionally has been very productive for the Tar Heels. That hasn’t been the case as much this season. Francis is trying to change that.
“I’m doing my job to the best of my ability, running secondary,” Francis said. “I started getting it about the second week. Coaches told me to push the ball more, that’s what I need to do. We’ll keep working on that, pushing the ball to a fast pace because our fast-break points aren’t where they need to be typical North Carolina. I’m learning the secondary break each and every day.”
He pushes the pace well, with the ability to not only pitch ahead with a pass but to speed down the court on the dribble. He not only can drive more of the fast tempo Williams prefers, but he isn’t shy about driving into the lane to either go directly to the hoop or create an easy shot for a big man.
Whether it’s a reverse layup on a baseline drive or a twisting drive through the lane or taking a charge, Francis clearly isn’t playing like a guy who is worried about getting hurt again.
“I don’t worry about it. I can’t take control of the future,” Francis said. “I hope I don’t, but if I get hurt taking the charge, you know, that’s what I’m gonna do, man. I’m a tough kid and I’m gonna do whatever coach wants me to do and the coach wanted me to take that charge and that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Anthony is a sure high pick in this year’s NBA draft. Francis, though, is the long-term answer at point guard as not only a player that will stay for multiple seasons but one with that dogged determination that Joel Berry used to lead UNC to the 2017 national championship.
Brooks sees a lot of Berry in Francis.
“He’s being that dog, the confident guy,” Brooks said. “You know he knows what he’s capable of.”
While he finally is healthy, Francis says his conditioning level isn’t anywhere close to where it needs to be.
“I believe I have a lot to build and I caught a little cramp during the [Yale] game, but it’s not major. I believe I caught my second wind during the UCLA game and in the break. So, I’m trying to find that second wind again,” said Francis, who played 28 minutes against UCLA and 27 against Yale.
Per 40 minutes, he’s averaging 14 points, 6.2 assists, 3.3 turnovers and 3.3 assists.
Francis admits that there aren’t many examples of a 6-0, 210-pound point guard out there. But he says he likes Kyle Lowry’s game.
“I like his game a lot, kind of just changing speeds a lot. And I like watching him,” said Francis, adding that he also likes Jalen Brunson’s game. “Just solid built guards.”
Francis impressed Williams as a high school sophomore. That season, Francis led Pickerington (Ohio) Central High School to a league title and a regional title. In August 2017, Francis committed to UNC nine days after being offered a scholarship.
Since then, he’s faced plenty of challenges. He had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in December 2017 and he came to Chapel Hill to undergo microfracture surgery on that knee in August 2018. He didn’t play in a game again for 990 days until his college debut at Virginia on Dec. 8.
Williams never wavered on his commitment to Francis even after the guard missed his last two high school seasons.
“I can’t thank him enough for sticking with me after all I’ve been through,” Francis said. “He could have easily cut me off. But I love Coach and I want to be part of this beautiful journey with him.”
It took a lot of work to get there, including daily early-morning weight-room sessions that he and roommate Anthony Harris powered through under the direction of UNC strength coach Jonas Sahratian, along with guidance from trainer Doug Halverson.
“It’s just a long process,” Francis said. “You’ve got to trust it and just trust yourself and keep going hard every day. Rehab has to be your basketball game. And that’s what my dad told me, and that’s how I looked at it. When I was hurt, just the rehab has to be your basketball game. You have to take them serious. I kind of was in and out of rehab and I didn’t really take it too serious until I got here.”
UNC has made a huge difference for Francis, from Dr. Alex Creighton, the team’s orthopedic physician who performed that August 2018 surgery, to the intense recovery process once he arrived in Chapel Hill. Before that, he had worked on getting his quadricep muscles right and getting his balance back.
“I really hit it hard when I got here, you know,” Francis said. “They know what they’re doing. I believe Jonas and Doug are the best in the world at what they do. I thank them every day for just me getting stronger and stronger and stronger. I appreciate it.”
After the bond he forged with Harris during those rehab sessions, Francis was emotional following the victory over Yale when talking about Harris injuring his right knee. Harris had also ended his road back with the game at Virginia after injuring his left knee in high school.
UNC is expected to update Harris’ status Friday.
“That’s my brother,” said Francis, with emotion in his voice and fighting off tears. “And I hope everything’s good. I love him and wish everything is the best.”
The two freshmen have known each other for a number of years and have been competitors in the past, but bonded since they arrived at Carolina.
“It’s really hard to see it go down. But especially I know what we’ve been through. It’s really hard,” Francis said.
Williams didn’t know what to expect from either player, given that neither had played for a while and not knowing how quickly they could get back into game shape.
“Some toughness is the biggest thing,” Williams said. “I’m dumbfounded how well that they’ve played with such little practice they’ve had. I’ve been surprised and elated with what those two kids have been able to do for us.”
Williams just hopes that he has both of them available again soon.
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