From his very first decision as a North Carolina Tar Heel, freshman forward Tony Bradley set the expectations about as high as possible. When it came time for the first-year players to choose jerseys, Bradley went with No. 5. The last owner of that number? Just All-American Marcus Paige, who had his jersey hung in the rafters of the Dean Dome earlier this season after graduating in May. The man who donned the No. 5 kit before Paige? Only Ty Lawson, 2009 ACC Player of the Year and, more importantly in Chapel Hill, national champion.

 
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So why did Bradley choose a number with such rich history at UNC? “Chose uniform No. 5 because it was the closest available to No. 4,” reads his bio on the school’s site. Okay then.

To be fair, Any jersey with “North Carolina” on the front and argyle on the sides holds great expectations, regardless of the number on the back, but that No. 5 came with especially large shoes to fill.

That hasn’t phased the freshman one bit.

Bradley scored in double figures in each of his first six games as a Tar Heel. The last UNC player to accomplish that was Brandan Wright in the 2006-07 season, who recorded double figures in his first 18 games in Carolina blue. Wright averaged 14.7 points and 6.2 rebounds in 27.4 minutes per game that season on his way to being named the ACC Rookie of the Year and becoming the eighth overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft.

Of course, Wright did that while starting each of the 37 games he played in that season, while Bradley has come off the bench in every contest this year.

That reserve role is mostly thanks to the two big men Bradley has to play behind this year: Kennedy Meeks, who averaged 9.2 points and 5.9 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game last season, and Isaiah Hicks, the 2016 ACC Sixth Man of the Year.

Still, the Tar Heels lost one of the best big men in UNC history last season when Brice Johnson graduated. Johnson, an All-American whose No. 11 jersey hangs in the rafters as well, left a gaping hole in the Tar Heels’ frontcourt. Coming into this year, it seemed as though the burden to fill that rested solely on the shoulders of Meeks and Hicks.

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But 13 games into the season, Bradley has shown how valuable he is in rounding out a menacing frontcourt for UNC.

Of Power-5 players who haven’t attempted a 3-pointer and have played more than 30 minutes this season, Bradley has the seventh-highest points per minute (.5413) and rebounds per minute (.3667). He is one of just four players to be in the top 10 of both categories. The other three are UNC’s Meeks, Michigan State's Nick Ward, and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.

POINTS PER MINUTE

 

Player

Class

School

Points per minute

1.

Nick Ward

FR

Michigan State

.7467

2.

Isaac Haas

JR

Purdue

.6305

3.

Reid Travis

JR

Stanford

.5795

4.

Kennedy Meeks

SR

North Carolina

.5699

5.

Michal Cekovsky

JR

Maryland

.5696

6.

Ethan Happ

SO

Wisconsin

.5442

7.

Tony Bradley

FR

North Carolina

.5413

8.

De’Ron Davis

FR

Indiana

.5338

9.

Brandon Watkins

SR

West Virginia

.5324

10.

Isaiah Hicks

SR

North Carolina

.5296

REBOUNDS PER MINUTE

 

Player

Class

School

Rebounds per minute

1.

Trevor Thompson

JR

Ohio State

.4360

2.

Bakary Konate

JR

Minnesota

.4037

3.

Kennedy Meeks

SR

North Carolina

.3993

4.

Ethan Happ

SO

Wisconsin

.3912

5.

Jayce Johnson

FR

Utah

.3897

6.

Thomas Welsh

JR

UCLA

.3739

7.

Tony Bradley

FR

North Carolina

.3667

8.

Nick Ward

FR

Michigan State

.3624

9.

David Bell

SO

Ohio State

.3600

10.

DeShawn Freeman

JR

Rutgers

.3578

The freshman also leads the nation in offensive rebounding percentage at 22.8, boasts the second highest shooting percentage on UNC’s squad — 57.8 percent — behind Hicks’ 60.6 percent, and the second-most rebounds per game for North Carolina — 6.3 — behind Meeks’ 9.1. Not a bad resume for your rookie campaign.

Of course, there have been valleys to go along with those peaks. Against Indiana, Bradley had just four points on 2-for-3 shooting with two rebounds in 15 minutes, and in 12 minutes against Davidson, he managed just three points (all from the charity stripe) and four rebounds.

In fact, in four of UNC’s five closest games, a 103-100 loss to Kentucky, an 83-74 win over Davidson, a 76-67 loss to Indiana, and a 71-56 win over Wisconsin, Bradley has played his worst. He put up just .362 points per minute and .224 rebounds per minute in those games, well below his season averages.

Some of that can be attributed to the fact that yes, Bradley is a freshman (even if his numbers belie his age) and that UNC coach Roy Williams is using this pre-conference play period as a time to experiment with different lineups, not really allowing Bradley to get fully comfortable in a single role. But that dip in performance during UNC’s biggest games of the season is somewhat troubling.

However, in UNC’s second-closest game of the season, a 73-71 win over Tennessee that saw the Volunteers leading by eight at halftime, Bradley had one of his best performances of the year, a double-double with 10 points on 3-for-4 shooting and 10 rebounds in 20 minutes. Most notably, less than five seconds left in the game, Bradley blocked the potential game-tying shot and grabbed the loose ball, securing UNC’s win.

While the Tar Heels have had plenty of capable underclassmen in recent history, it's been a while since a big man came in ready to perform in clutch, late-game moments like that. If Bradley can continue to be efficient in the minutes he gets as a backup (and potentially as a starter down the line), UNC might not miss a step in making another deep tournament run come March.