UNC Basketball: Tar Heels’ lack of NBA stars negatively impacts recruiting

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 08: Coby White #0 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball on offense against the Brooklyn Nets in the second half at Barclays Center on March 08, 2020 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MARCH 08: Coby White #0 of the Chicago Bulls handles the ball on offense against the Brooklyn Nets in the second half at Barclays Center on March 08, 2020 in New York City. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

The UNC basketball program’s recruiting efforts would be aided by having more alumni develop into NBA stars.

I know I’ll get blasted for a number of the things that follow, so let me first start by saying that none of what you’re about to read is meant to be a slight toward Roy Williams, the North Carolina basketball program or its players — either past or present. It’s simply an assertion that if more former Tar Heels were to develop into star players at the NBA level, it would aid Williams and his coaching staff in their efforts on the recruiting trail.

Having said that, I think that North Carolina has done very well in that regard since Williams took the Tar Heels’ vacant head coaching position in 2003. They’ve gotten 24 commitments from 5-star prospects over the last 17 seasons — 23 if you exclude J.R. Smith — as well as a number of highly-ranked 4-stars. Only a handful of programs in college basketball can boast numbers that rival that of the Tar Heels, which is to say that they’ve done incredibly well.

Of those 23 recruits with 5-star status, 18 have moved beyond the college ranks and on to a career in the NBA. Cole Anthony is among the five that haven’t, but that will no longer be the case after this year’s unprecedented NBA Draft on November 18. Armando Bacot, Caleb Love, Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler, a sophomore and three freshmen, respectively, are the other four, and are on North Carolina’s current roster. I’d be willing to wager that each of them moves on to an NBA career as well, and all four will more than likely be first round draft picks.

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That means that of the nearly two-dozen 5-star recruits to play at North Carolina between 2004 and 2020, all would go on to make an NBA roster after college. Maybe equally as impressive is that of those 23 players, 20 of them have or will have been first round draft picks. The only ones that haven’t are James Michael McAdoo, Isaiah Hicks and Theo Pinson, all three of whom went undrafted, but have seen playing time on NBA rosters.

What’s not so impressive is that none of those 18 players that have made it to the NBA have made an All-Star roster; not a single one. Compare that to a program like Duke or Kentucky and the difference is clear. While North Carolina gets players to the professional level as well as almost anyone, the results are very different once they get there.

Take the Wildcats, for example, who over the course of the 2020 NBA Playoffs showed the kind of talent that has come out of the program over the past decade. Anthony Davis, Jamaal Murray and Bam Adebayo each made a major impact for their respective teams, and two of the three have made at least one All-Star Game appearance. The other, Murray, will likely be an All-Star in the coming years. In Davis’ case, he’s a seven-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA first team selection and two-time All-Defensive first team selection.

Maybe Davis isn’t a fair example. And maybe Murray and Adebayo aren’t either. But what about John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony Towns and Devin Booker? The latter is quickly becoming one of the league’s most dynamic and respected scorers, while Wall and Cousins had as good of five-year stretches in the league as anyone at the time. There’s also a number of former Kentucky players that haven’t become All-Stars, but have been difference-makers all the same. Tyler Herro is one of the league’s most impressive rookies. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a rising star for the Oklahoma City Thunder, and De’Aaron Fox is off to a great start in Sacramento. The list truly goes on and on.

Duke has Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving, Brandon Ingram, Marvin Bagley III, RJ Barrett and J.J. Redick among others. And it hasn’t been that long since Luol Deng, Shane Battier and Carlos Boozer took their jerseys off for the final time. Not all of the aforementioned Duke players have made an All-Star team, nor have they all been All-NBA level talent. But some of them have, and some of them will be for years to come. North Carolina, on the other hand, simply hasn’t had that since Vince Carter’s prime in the mid-2000s.

Again, I want to emphasize that my intent here is not to bludgeon the Tar Heels with complimentary talk of their rivals, or to devalue players that accomplished so much at the college level. It’s simply to illustrate a point; the point that it’s often easier for coaches to recruit top-end talent to their program when they can claim former players that have been incredibly successful at the next level. Let’s face it, that’s what the majority of elite high school junior and senior basketball players want; to make it to the NBA. Knowing that the path they’re considering taking has been so successful for other kids in their shoes goes a long way to making a commitment.

To circle back to the recruiting benefits of having star players on the biggest stage, Duke has gotten 37 commitments from 5-star players since 2004. That’s over a dozen more than the Tar Heels in the same amount of time. Comparatively, Kentucky has gotten 47 just since 2009 when John Calipari took over after a largely successful stint at Memphis. Some will point to claims of cheating or money exchanging hands, but none of that has been proven to this point; at least not during his time at Kentucky. The same goes for Mike Krzyzewski, though that may change as more information continues to come out about the Zion Williamson recruitment.

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The overarching point that I’m trying to drive home is simply this: The programs that continue to churn out above-average NBA talent continue to bring in a larger portion of the nation’s elite high school players. There’s simply no way around that fact.

That’s why the Tar Heels need players like Coby White and Cameron Johnson to continue their ascent. It’s why Nassir Little needs to find his identity and be a difference-maker for the Portland Trailblazers, and why Cole Anthony needs to come in and make an immediate impact for whatever team nabs him in the upcoming draft. And I’d be remiss to not mention Danny Green, a former Tar Heel sharpshooter and second round draft pick has seen his fair share of success and stardom with the Spurs, Raptors and Lakers, but he’ll always be an ancillary piece at most. North Carolina needs another crowning jewel like Carter, his running mate Antawn Jamison, 90s bash brothers Rasheed Wallace and Jerry Stackhouse, or 80s legends Sam Perkins, James Worthy and Michael Jordan.

Yes, the Tar Heels put together a terrific 2020 recruiting class, but they’re struggling again with the class of 2021. And they’ve gone three years without signing a high-level wing, which is something that UNC fans often ask me about. Ask yourself this: when did a UNC wing last make a major impact in the NBA?  And how many UNC wings can you honestly recall that made it to the NBA since 2004? The list might be shorter than you think.

Excluding the two most recent wings, Cameron Johnson and Nassir Little, you’ve got Justin Jackson, Reggie Bullock and Harrison Barnes. Jackson’s progression has been slow at best, and the same goes for Bullock, who’s shown flashes here and there while playing for five different teams since 2013. Harrison Barnes has had his moments, but has largely underachieved, at least based on the expectations we all had for him.

The Tar Heels can still out-recruit almost every college basketball program in the nation; there’s no doubt about that. But when UNC fans ask me why Duke and Kentucky consistently beat the Tar Heels out for a number of their 5-star targets, I point to this. No matter what anyone says, the level of success that players have in the NBA reflects the college program they played at. And in that regard, Duke and Kentucky simply have a greater amount of success than anyone else. That sells itself without the aid of cheating or under-the-table deals funneled through crooked AAU connections or shoe companies.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Coby White is a star in the making. Cameron Johnson did something that a first round draft pick from North Carolina hasn’t done in a long time – surpass expectations. Cole Anthony, despite the up-and-down season he had at North Carolina, has the potential to be a star. I also believe that freshman point guard Caleb Love has what it takes to be a star at the next level. And the same could go for any of the Tar Heels’ young, talented big men, but we’ll have to wait a bit longer to see how that turns out.

Duke and Kentucky will keep recruiting at a higher level than North Carolina as long as their alumni continue to have so much more success at the NBA level, but a terrific crop of NBA rookies, and a pair of talented point guards separated by just one year could change all of that.

Next. Tar Heels reach out to 5-star wing. dark

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