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July 20, 2011
North Carolina's routine during the summer months is obviously quite different than during the school year and especially in the middle of the season. But it's certainly not a time to slow down.
It's well-known that UNC's players spend much of the months of June and July in Chapel Hill, where they take part in a variety of activities.
It includes summer classes, strength and conditioning sessions with Jonas Sahratian, and the notorious pickup games against themselves and former Tar Heel standouts in the Smith Center and at sanctioned events such as the Greater N.C. Pro Am.
"It's great (being in Chapel Hill in the summer). You really get to focus," said sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall. "I talked to my dad, and he said he would leave the decision up to me if I wanted to come home after I finished with (the first) summer school (session in June), but I told him I really wanted to stay here (in Chapel Hill) and just work out."
Fellow sophomore Harrison Barnes echoed Marshall's sentiments.
"It's great," Barnes said about summer in the heart of Carolina.
"Everyone always asks, 'Oh, you don't get to home for vacation? You don' get to go home and see your family?' But this is like vacation. You get to go to summer school classes and you're done by 12 (noon)."
Obviously it's a different type of workload for the players academically than during the school year, when they're taking a minimum of 12 hours---or four regular three-hour classes---or a maximum of up to 18 hours, or six regular three-hour courses.
Usually in the summer the players will take one or two classes, which frees them up in the afternoons and evenings to engage in their pickup games and weight room sessions.
"You wake up, go to class. You work out at 1:30. Pickup games are at 5:00," said junior forward John Henson.
"Right now we lift weights every day and then play pickup. We do individual workouts on our own and just hopefully improve over the course of the summer," said senior center Tyler Zeller.
In the weight room, it's all about strength training, muscle development, and endurance.
It's also about nutrition and making sure that one doesn't get complacent during the summer in terms of what they're putting into their bodies.
"I'm trying to take care of my body, stretching, eating the right things, drinking a lot of water," said Marshall.
"Whether it's eating right, lifting, all that kind of stuff, if I can just get consistency in my daily routine as a player and as a person, I think I'll be just fine," added Henson.
One of the more glamorous aspects of being a Tar Heel basketball player in the summertime is knowing that you're going to get a chance to compete against a who's who of former players---many of which can walk in the Smith Center and see their jerseys up in the rafters alongside some of the greats to ever wear the powder blue.
"You get to come to the gym and play a lot of these pros. And everyone has a different story, from Jawad (Wiliams), who is overseas, to Rasheed (Wallace), who is retired, to Raymond (Felton), who is at Denver," said Barnes.
"You know, pros are coming through," added Henson. "Sean May, Rasheed (Wallace) has been playing, Raymond Felton, Jackie Manuel, Shammond (Williams), David Noel. There are a lot of guys around. It's always fun to play those guys, And they make us better, and hopefully we make them better somedays."
"Everyone is different, and you just get to hear a lot of funny stories," Barnes continued. "Oh, you can learn a lot. I mean, those guys, they've been through the ringer."
"Not only do they know the college game well, but everything they've gone through in the pros, from the old guys, to guys that are just coming into the League. So you can learn an infinite amount from those guys."
By now, most everyone knows that there's a certain fire that burns within Barnes---a fire that makes him want to compete against the best and challenge the best.
So it's not surprising that he not only stood up to the revered Tar Heel greats like May, Felton, and others when he arrived in Chapel Hill, but openly took them on.
"I remember last summer we started this thing where it was going to be 'Our Five' (the current players) against 'Their Five,' (the older players) because it used to just be inter-mingled with pros and current guys. But we wanted to make it 'Us against Them,' because we felt like we could beat them," Barnes said.
It was a lesson in humility for the young Barnes and his Tar Heel newcomers, but it also taught them early on what it would take to compete against some serious talent.
"We had been chatting it up a little bit---getting the trash talk going---and they (the older players) killed us, to say the least that first day," Barnes said.
"That was the first time I had ever seen a pro defense really pressure and trap like that. It was a very humbling experience, but that just got us so much better, I think, and it just prepares us for the season."
This summer the games between the current Tar Heels and the graduated veterans have returned and picked up in intensity as the resident UNC players have learned what it takes to compete.
"We still do it now, It's a little more competitive. We got used to it after a couple of days going 'oh-fer.'" said Barnes. "You definitely need to bring on your helmet because you've got Rasheed, Big (Sean) May, Brendon Haywood. There's a couple bruisers down there. No (they don't take it easy on us), not at all."
"When we played the Camp games (in June), there were refs out there and it was a little more serious than the pickup games," added Henson.
Both Henson and Barnes agree that having to guard and try to score against NBA players and guys that are on the fringe of being in the NBA undoubtedly make them better players.
It's probably the best possible practice the Tar Heels could ask for aside of physically being in practice with Roy Williams.
"Me guarding Jawad (Williams) is always fun, because he's a great player. Sometimes I wonder why he's not in the NBA, because he can put it in the basket. So that's probably the most fun matchup," said Henson.
"Shammond (Williams) has guarded me. I've had to guard Ray (Felton), Jackie Manuel, David Noel, Rey Terry when he comes back, Marvin Williams. I mean, you get matched up with everybody and anybody, (so you pick up) guard skills."
"Yeah, it does (make you better)," Henson continued. "And you know, I think it's one thing that you've just got to fight through. You've got to get better and just hope for the best. It's skill but also a little luck (playing against the pros), so hopefully they can both hit me at the same time."
As they've been working out against each other and the former UNC stars, each Tar Heel player has his own specific areas of growth and development.
"Individual areas I'm working on is definitely my shooting, my 'catch and shoot,' becoming a knockdown shooter, as well as my durability------as well as just defensively, keeping the other team's point guard in front of me," said Marshall.
"(I'm working on) just consistency with my shot, my form, and the post moves," said Henson.
"Ball handling---definitely ball handling. I just want to improve on that," added Barnes.
From Marshall's perspective, getting to work on all those things in the familiar surroundings of the Smith Center is better for his long-term development than trying to do everything back home away from the extensive support structure he has in place in Chapel Hill.
"Working on the little things, like being able to shoot in my arena, shoot with the Nike balls we're going to play with throughout the year, and having the pros around here that will push me every day. I think it's a great experience for me," he said.
"The main three things I would say (I'm working to improve this summer) is defending---going to the ball, keeping their (opposing) point guard out of the lane---my shooting---just becoming a knockdown shooter so opposing teams will respect me---and thirdly just taking care of my body, becoming more durable having to play 30 minutes a game," Marshall continued.
Summertime in Chapel Hill is about competition and development, but it's also about developing critical team camaraderie that will rub off once the season begins in a few months.
The players live together, eat together, go to classes together, work out together, and hang out together away from the UNC campus.
These guys are in a position to get to know one another better than most anyone else in their lives---and that's undoubtedly going to help when they take the court together for games.
"I think this team is very unique because I think we're very close. Our team chemistry is great," said Zeller. "So I think any challenges that come at us, I think we'll handle as a team rather than trying to handle individually."
"I just think the way everybody supports each other and the way we all kind of look out for each other both on and off the court. Just being in the locker room everybody gets along with everybody."
"There's not really any fights, and if it is fights, its kind of more kind of 'messing around,' and we have a good time with each other," Zeller added.
The carefree days of summer are just starting on the calendar---the season doesn't end until late September---but they're kind of winding down for North Carolina's players.
The second summer session ended on Monday, and the players have a couple of days of Reading Days before exams on Thursday and Friday.
From there, the players will get a couple weeks back home before returning to Chapel Hill in mid-August for the start of the school year.
It's the wrap of another fun summer for the UNC basketball players, but it's just a prelude to when the hard work really begins in a couple of months.