After getting off to an inconsistent start to the season following an injury to star PG Marcus Paige, North Carolina is starting to look like the team people expected them to be when they were picked No. 1 in the preseason polls. The Tar Heels have an 18-2 record and a 7-0 mark in ACC play and they haven’t lost a game in well over a month. In a year where there aren’t any great teams in college basketball, UNC looks like as good a bet as any to cut down the nets in March.
This is the best team that Roy Williams has had in four seasons, since a group with four future first-round picks - Tyler Zeller, John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall - lost in the Elite Eight. They were as talented as any team in recent memory and they went toe-to-toe in a regular season classic with the best of John Calipari’s teams at Kentucky, the one headlined by Anthony Davis that went 38-2 and won a national title. Were it not for an untimely wrist injury to Marshall in the NCAA Tournament, the two teams might have squared off in a national championship game for the ages.
Since that season, the two programs have gone in different directions. It’s easy to forget now that Harrison Barnes has established himself as a role player at the NBA level, but he was one of the most sought-after recruits in the last generation, the first freshman to ever be selected as a preseason first-team All-American. Every blue-blood program in the country desperately wanted him and he chose UNC. Roy Williams hasn’t gotten a recruit of that caliber since, a five-year stretch that is almost an eternity in the world of college basketball recruiting.
The difference between UNC and Kentucky have done over the last four seasons is eye-opening. John Calipari has churned out seven one-and-done first-round picks - Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Julius Randle, James Young, Karl Towns, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker - and at least two more who would go in the first round of the 2016 draft - Skal Labissiere and Jamal Murray. In that same period of time, Roy Williams has produced a grand total of zero.
It’s not just Kentucky either. The dynamic between UNC and their archrivals on Tobacco Road has flipped. The Tar Heels used to be the program stocked to the gills with future pros while Duke was the one trying to win with four-year seniors. These days, with Coach K basking in the afterglow of coaching Team USA to consecutive gold medals, Duke has become a one-and-done factory. They have brought in Top 3 picks in three consecutive seasons - Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Brandon Ingram - and they have the No. 1 and 2 players in the country - Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum - coming in next season. A generation ago, two guys like that would have been far more likely to go to Chapel Hill than Durham.
Whether it’s the massive academic scandal that has been hanging over the program or just a lack of recruiting momentum in the face of the overwhelming success of Duke and Kentucky, Roy Williams has had to take a different tack when it comes to recruiting. He’s still bringing in McDonald’s All-Americans but he’s no longer getting the guys whom NBA scouts have been salivating over since high school. This year’s team is the perfect example - a bunch of great NCAA players on the fringes of the first-round discussion. Even if they win a national title, there isn’t a lottery pick among them.
When it comes to evaluating players for the NBA draft, measurables and skill-sets are far more important than NCAA production. The first thing scouts ask about prospects is what position can they guard at the next level and if they lack the required physical dimensions there’s a ceiling (literally and metaphorically) to how high they can go. Draymond Green is the archetypal example of how that line of thinking can go too far, but he’s the exception that proves the rule who is re-defining positional requirements at the NBA level.
For every Draymond Green, there’s a dozen big men who are too short to play C and not skilled enough to play PF, a dozen combo forward who aren’t strong enough to play PF and not good enough shooters to play SF and a dozen combo guards who aren’t big enough to be SG’s and who don’t have the floor game to be PG’s. While UNC’s top four players are all great NCAA players, they are all positional tweeners at the next level.
Marcus Paige - Paige has struggled with the after-effects of a wrist injury and he hasn’t taken the step forward many expected as a senior. Nevertheless, he’s still the heart and soul of the team and a guy who has almost single-handedly had to carry the program over the last few years. Paige is a do-everything PG who can run the offense, shoot from anywhere and create a shot off the dribble whenever he wants, but he’s undersized for the position at the next level (6’2 175 with a 6’4 wingspan) and he doesn’t have the elite speed to make up for it. DraftExpress currently has him as the No. 46 pick in their most recent mock draft.
Justin Jackson - The lone underclassmen in their starting five, Jackson is a versatile forward who fills a number of different roles. He’s a fluid athlete who runs the break and defends multiple positions, crashes the boards, facilitates the offense and can get his own shot either off the dribble or running around screens. The problem is that he’s a combo forward who is too skinny (6’8 195 with a 6’11 wingspan) to take the pounding of the PF position at the NBA level and he lacks the three-point shot (21.7% on 3.0 3PA’s a game) to play too much on the perimeter. DX has him at No. 33 in their mock as a sophomore and there’s a very good chance he ends up coming back to school.
Brice Johnson - The guy who has taken the biggest step forward this season, Johnson has emerged as a legitimate Wooden Award candidate as a senior, averaging 16.8 points and 10.2 rebounds a game on 63.3% shooting. The problem with him is that he’s not big enough (6’9 230 with a 6’11 wingspan) to be a starting C in the NBA and he doesn’t have the shooting range to play as a PF. He’s probably best suited to being a small-ball 5 off the bench at the next level, which is why DX has him at No. 41 in their mock.
Kennedy Meeks - If there’s a prototype for the great NCAA player with an uncertain NBA future, it’s probably Meeks. At 6’9 265 with a 7’0 wingspan, he’s a gifted low-post scorer who can overwhelm 99% of NCAA big men at the front of the rim and dominate the game in the paint. The problem is that NBA big men are the 1% - there’s not much Meeks is going to be able to do against Goliaths like Andre Drummond and Rudy Gobert. Most 6’9 NBA players are lithe forwards who can handle and shoot like guards and that isn’t Meeks’ game at all He’s a junior at No. 43 in the DX mock and he’ll probably have to return for his senior season.
The good news for UNC fans is that doesn’t really matter until May and June whether or not Paige, Jackson, Johnson and Meeks have NBA measurables. Even if they go up against longer and faster NBA prototypes like Brandon Ingram, they are much older and much more experienced and that matters a lot more in March. The freshman class of 2015 isn’t nearly as talented as the class of 2014 and there aren’t any 19-year olds like Okafor, Towns and Justise Winslow out there who are likely to take over the NCAA Tournament.
The biggest plus of recruiting guys who don’t have NBA measurables is that they can’t leave early for the draft, no matter how well they play at the NCAA level. It doesn’t matter what Ingram does for Duke and whether or not they advance far in the Tournament - a 6’9+ player with his combination of length, speed and shooting ability is going to go high regardless. Conversely, it doesn’t matter if Justin Jackson catches fire in the NCAA Tournament. Unless he starts knocking down 3’s at a higher clip, it’s not going to mean much to NBA scouts.
If anything, this year’s UNC team resembles Roy Williams last two title teams, both of which were built around big men who lacked NBA measurables. Sean May (2005) and Tyler Hansbrough (2009) peaked at 22 and were never able to translate their NCAA stardom into NBA success. NBA front offices have become a lot savvier since then and there’s little chance that Brice Johnson or Kennedy Meeks will go in the lottery, no matter how well they play in March. This could be as good as it gets for UNC’s stars in terms of their basketball careers, but winning a national championship isn’t a bad consolation prize.