Besides His Royal Airness, who must be mentioned at the start of any article about North Carolina basketball players in the NBA, UNC has a surprisingly poor track record converting former players to NBA stars. This is especially true during the Roy Williams era.
Yes, the greatest player of all time played spent his collegiate days in Chapel Hill, but also played under legendary coach Dean Smith. Since Michael Jordan very few Tar Heels have made an above-average impact at the next level. It seems strange considering UNC is one of the most storied college hoops programs of all time.
Take look at the full list of former Carolina players drafted into the NBA since 2004, the year Williams took over, see if you notice anything strange.
*Didn’t finish his college career at UNC
The strange part? No All-Stars, no All-NBA selections. I originally created columns for All-Star appearances and All-NBA teams, but two columns of nothing but zeros seemed strange.
Even crazier, the last time a UNC alum was an All-Star was 2007-08, when Antawn Jamison and Rasheed Wallace earned spots on the team.
This list is baffling to me. If you pulled up similar lists for Kentucky or Duke, you’d see a ton of household names, and I’d definitely have to add columns for All-Star appearances and All-NBA nods. So what’s the difference between UNC and those other two dominant college basketball programs?
It would be foolish to ever try to knock John Calipari or Coach K, two of the best coaches to ever set foot on the hardwood. But their strategy is different. They have become legends by taking in the nation’s top recruits, getting the best out of them in a short window, and sending them off to a usually fruitful NBA career.
Williams’ style is different. Instead of the superstar one-and-done types, Williams targets the nation’s best players who still need a bit of work. The Tar Heels haven’t had a one-and-done player since Brandan Wright in 2007, and he was only the second short-term rental in Williams 14-year tenure at UNC (along with Marvin Williams, who left after winning the 2005 national championship).
NBC Sports’ Rob Dauster worded Williams’ strategy nicely:
“His bread and butter are the kids that are elite prospects but that fall just short of that one-and-done threshold, the four-and five-star kids that need a couple years on campus before they turn into NBA-caliber prospects,” Dauster said. “Think Justin Jackson, a top 15 player that needed to develop the confidence and strength to be able to play on the wing in the NBA.”
Dauster makes an interesting point and it goes even deeper. The longer Williams can keep great players who aren’t elite NBA prospects in Chapel Hill, the more accustomed to the UNC style of play they become.
“North Carolina’s offense is fairly unique in the college ranks,” Dauster said. “They don’t run many set plays at all; players and staff estimate that about 70 percent of their half court possessions are what Heels call ‘freelance’ which is exactly what is sounds like.”
Former ‘Heels point guard Marcus Paige elaborated.
“Everybody does what they want,” Paige said in the NBC piece.
Of course there are plenty of so-called “freelancers” in the NBA, but this role is often reserved for the very best players in the league. Seth Curry, Lebron James, Seth Curry … you get the point. Tyler Zeller? Ehhh … not so much.
UNC stars are fantastic college players who come together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Williams — who just won his third national title — seems fine with that strategy.
Don’t get me wrong here. Plenty of Williams’ former Heels have thrown together successful pro careers, from Ty Lawson to Harrison Barnes. They are solid players with a defined role. They just aren’t superstars.
As it stands, UNC boasts the No. 29 recruiting class heading into next season according to 24/7 Sports, behind programs like Western Kentucky, Colorado and Mississippi State. Huh?
Surely Williams will add some more talent to the fold, but as of now, he’s following his usual strategy. The class features Jalek Felton, the No. 26 player in the country, who most feel still needs to grow in the college game. Behind him are a trio of 3-star prospects who most definitely have some learning ahead.
To put it in perspective, Kentucky currently boasts the No. 1 recruiting class headed into next season, featuring five 5-star prospects and one 4-star prospect. Five of those six players are ranked in the top-25 in the class, and three of the six are projected as first-round 2018 NBA Draft picks. They will come in, do their job for a season, and go on to have massive NBA careers.
All the while, the 2017 UNC recruiting class will still be learning, and most likely still winning.