Why Didn't Roy Recruit Any Shooters?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

With UNC mired at 1-4 in the ACC and the season potentially slipping into the abyss thanks in large part to a lack of perimeter the question that gets asked most is why UNC lacks wing depth or rather why Roy Williams didn't recruit enough wing players. Given UNC's place in the college basketball royalty snagging a good three point shooter at least once every two years should be easy right? Clearly not nor is it as simple as the average fan has been led to believe by talking heads screaming about how UNC reloads or picks rather than recruits.

Since this question has come up so often, let's take a look at UNC's wing position recruiting over the past two seasons.

Historical Perspective

Here is the list of wing players Roy Williams has recruited at UNC starting with the class of 2005

Class Players
2005 Danny Green, Bobby Frasor, Marcus Ginyard
2006 Wayne Ellington, Will Graves
2007 NONE
2008 Justin Watts
2009 Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald
2010 Harrison Barnes, Reggie Bullock
2011 P.J. Hairston
2012 J.P. Tokoto
2013 NONE

A couple of caveats. First of all, not all wing players are necessarily shooters. Marcus Ginyard, Dexter Strickland and J.P. Tokoto were likely recruited for attributes beyond being a shooter. They are destined to be "utility" guys who fill in the gaps with good defense, picking up a loose ball or rebound, etc. That is why the loss of Hairston probably impacts Tokoto as much as anyone Marcus Paige excluded. Tokoto playing on the wing opposite Hairston would probably be far more effective since he could truly pick his spots much the way Strickland did playing on the 2011 and 2012 teams.  Roy Williams likes having at least one player who fits that bill, mainly because said player is usually a solid defender.

Secondly, not all these guys panned out as shooters when they reached UNC. Bobby Frasor was scouted in high school as being a three point specialist but that never really materialized when he got to UNC.  Likewise, Leslie McDonald was supposed to be a better shooter than he has turned out to be in his fifth year. The lesson here is sometimes the players don't perform at the level we think they might when they show up on campus.

The historical view tells us that for most of Williams' tenure, he has had plenty of wing players. In 2006 with three new freshman on the wings he also had David Noel, Reyshawn Terry and Wes Miller who shot between 38-44% from three. The 2007-2009 had five recruited players who can play on the wings in addition to Terry who shot 42% from three that season and Miller. The 2010 team had three but only Will Graves was a reliable shooter(much the same issue as this season.) The 2011 team ended up with only one reliable three point shooter by the end of the season and that was Harrison Barnes. In 2012 Bullock returned from injury, Barnes was there and Hairston was a freshman giving UNC more options. Even last season, UNC had two three point shooters and Marcus Paige starting to show some improvement there at the end of the season.

The point is, there have only been three seasons under Williams with a shortage in perimeter scoring: 2014, 2011 and 2010. All three of those seasons have included either NBA defections, an injury or a player from Greensboro getting himself kicked off the team.The 2010 team lost everyone from 2009 and was left with two freshman wing players and Will Graves. The 2011 team was supposed to have Barnes and Bullock to go along with Strickland, Graves, McDonald and Watts but ended the season with just Barnes and Strickland. This season was supposed to have Bullock, Hairston, McDonald and Tokoto but now just has Tokoto and McDonald, both of which are around 31% from three. The main crux of the issue is the unexpected nature of these losses. Yes, there is some criticism that Roy Williams didn't properly plan for NBA defections more on that in a moment.

Wing Players in the Past Two Classes

The most obvious solution to UNC's wing shortage in 2014 would have been for the Tar Heels to have gotten at least one quality shooter in either of the last two classes. That didn't happen with the only wing player brought in over the past two seasons being Tokoto who isn't slated for the role of scorer. The question is why is that the case? The reasons are numerous not to mention at times nebulous. Here is the pool of shooting guards and small forwards ranked in Scout.com's top 25 over the past two recruiting cycles.

2012 - Shooting Guards

Player Position/Overall Rank UNC offer? School
Rasheed Sulaimon 1/12 Yes Duke
Marcus Smart 2/13 Yes Oklahoma State
Archie Goodwin 3/14 No Kentucky
Gary Harris 4/16 No Michigan State
Ricardo Ledo 5/17 No Providence
Rodney Purvis 6/17 No NC State

2012 - Small Forwards

Player Position/Overall Rank UNC offer? School
Shabazz Muhammed 1/2 Yes UCLA
Kyle Anderson 2/4 No UCLA
Alex Poythress 3/7 No Kentucky
Sam Dekker 4/14 No Wisconsin
Devonta Pollard 5/25 No Alabama


2013 - Shooting Guards

Player Position/Overall Rank UNC offer? School
Aaron Harrison 1/6 No Kentucky
Robert Hubbs 2/20 No Tennessee
Matt Jones 3/25 Yes Duke


2013 - Small Forwards

Andrew Wiggins 1/1 Yes Kansas
Jabari Parker 2/3 No Duke
Rondae Jefferson 3/10 No Arizona
James Young 4/11 No Kentucky
Wayne Selden 5/12 No Kansas
Jabari Bird 6/13 No California

Some observations

1. The pool of quality wing players is actually really small.

Let's not pretend like there is some giant pool of great talent out there for UNC to draw from. In the last two recruiting classes there have been a total of 20 wing players in the top 25 of each class according to Scout.com. Yes, there are undoubtedly good players when you go below twenty five but for the sake of this exercise I am focusing on the upper tier  with one notable exception. NC State's T.J. Warren was 27th in the 2012 class and had an offer from UNC. One reason is those are the players UNC should be expending most of their effort to chase and secondly, I can only imagine the level of whining from Tar Heel fans if Williams was taking time to dig for diamonds in the rough. In fact that is happening now with various complaints that Williams has wasted scholarships on "project" players. It can't be both. If Williams limits himself to the small pool of quality talent in any given year, the possibility of success is going to be lower given the highly competitive nature of recruiting at this level.

2. You cannot offer everyone.

UNC has five offers to the 20 players listed here plus one to Warren and one to a low rated shooter named Bronson Koenig. So out of 20 possible wing players in the top 25 in each class, UNC made a serious run at five of them. One was Shabazz Muhammed who UNC backed away from for reasons that later became apparent. The run at Andrew Wiggins was well-documented and UNC simply lost on the other three for whatever reason, two of them to Duke. The point here is UNC only has so many slots to offer and tries to be judicious in when those get doled out. It also illustrates how thin the line between recruiting success and failure can be sometimes. As noted above, if a coach is pursuing a subset of a subset of players, the probabilities of success become dependent on a variety of factors speaking of which....

3. Recruiting is complicated.

Again, fans have been fed a fair amount of poppycock over the years from people like Dick Vitale who say UNC can have any player they want at any position they want. There are many, many factors in recruiting. Geography is a huge one. Michigan State's Gary Harris had an offer list that only included major schools with a reasonable proximity of his home in Indiana. Sam Dekker was from Wisconsin and ended up going to Madison. Jabri Bird is a California kid so he stayed home and Robert Hubbs was from Tennessee so he chose Tennessee. That doesn't mean Roy Williams can't steal players from other states, he does it all the time. However the geographic factor will automatically eliminate some recruits or make the job of getting them to Chapel Hill that much harder. That was probably the case with Marcus Smart who is from Texas and ended up at Oklahoma State.

Players also need to fit the system and mesh with the coach. Not every player on the list is someone Williams wants and not every player on the list necessarily wants to play for UNC or Williams. Some players get locked in on certain schools early which seems to be the case with Kentucky recruits and I'll leave that up to debate as to why that's the case. Some players might be out of this world talent but are total head cases, have high school academic issues or have handlers which Williams refuses to get involved with. And yes a player who likes to shoot threes might want to go to Duke over UNC because the style is a better fit or they really enjoy slapping the floor.

When you are starting with a pool of 20-25 players and understand the number of factors that can winnow the list down to a handful, it is easy to see a gap in recruiting is possible and in turn how that gap can cause problems when mixed with unexpected attrition.

4. Kansas and Kentucky are sucking up all the available oxygen in the room.

ESPN's Seth Greenberg said Monday night UNC is losing out to Kansas and Kentucky in recruiting. Since those two names along with UCLA and Duke show up on this list more than once, that certainly could be a factor though I have my doubts it is the only one. If UK wasn't in the mix for the four guys on this list they recruited would it have improved UNC's chances? That's possible but also cannot be proven. Kentucky does benefit from being the hot ticket in town right now so perhaps that closes the door on some players before UNC can make a serious run at them. That is assuming UNC is in the same mix for the targets UK is after. Again, I have my doubts this is a huge problem but with the line between success and failure being so thin it can't be ignored either.

5. Current personnel can and does impact recruiting decisions.

The favored criticism of WIlliams in all of this is he should have planned for losing Bullock and/or Hairston. While there is merit to that it is easier said than done. Recruiting a player starts when they are freshmen or sophomores in high school. The incoming class for UNC probably started talking to UNC two or so years ago. Part of those conversations include playing time and a factor in deciding to commit to a school rest on whether there will be a slot for a player to see the court when he gets there. When Williams is talking to a wing player for the 2012 class, it is tough to get around the fact that he might have to play behind Bullock and Hairston when he gets there. The same issue arises in trying to recruit for the 2013 class since the bulk of the recruiting happens well before anyone, even the current players, know what they will be doing the next season. While hindsight says Williams should have known Bullock would be gone and maybe even Hairston, talking about that possibility to a recruit six months to a year before it those decisions could be made complicates the process.

It even comes up in recruiting the current class where UNC did not get a commit from combo guard Robert Johnson out of concern for playing time because UNC already had Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, Nate Britt and Marcus Paige. In short, these are 17-18 year old high school players trying to make a life altering decision and little things matter.

Solutions

The thing is, the 2014 class already looks like Roy Williams has the ship turned around and headed back in the right direction. It is important to remember that Williams has often used two classes to build a team. The 2007-09 teams were built from the 2005 and 2006 classes. The 2011 and 2012 teams were built from the 2009 and 2010 classes. The problem UNC is having right now is the last three classes did not necessarily provide a big enough infusion of elite talent like those other groups. Couple that with McAdoo not quite panning out and Hairston being kicked off the team, the elite talent has not only suffered but done so on the perimeter.

The 2014 class looks to be that infusion of elite talent and mixed in with a core of solid players for what should be a very good team. Assuming enough of those players can stay put for the 2015-16 season and UNC adds more talent in the 2015 class, the stage is set for the Tar Heels to get momentum going again. The nice thing about basketball is fixing a bad season is one recruiting class away. The 2003 team ended up being national champions in 2005. After a miserable 2010 season , UNC won an ACC regular season title in 2011. Likewise, I fully expect the 2014-15 team to restore order.

That doesn't mean Roy Williams shouldn't make some adjustments to his approach. There seem to be plenty of shooters in college basketball who end up at mid-majors but could perhaps help a team like UNC out in a pinch. Identifying a player or two that fits that bill would be helpful but again that is also a delicate dance. Recruiting is all about focusing on players you want and affording them attention. You have to show them they are a priority and wasting time on lower caliber talent can be an issue. On the flip side, many players who are down the rankings have no desire to commit to a school where they might be recruited over or not play as much as they would at a mid-major. And again, with all the complaints heard this season about UNC bringing in too many projects, grabbing a low end talent isn't going to make anyone happy.

The bottom line is for as simple as critics try to make UNC's lack of shooters sound, it really isn't. As much as people want to point the finger at Roy Williams and say he screwed up in his planning, much of this situation and the process is outside of even his control. In addition to that, not having wing players commit doesn't mean Williams and his staff haven't made an effort. Sometimes you lose in recruiting and yes, sometimes mistakes get made but usually those kinds of things don't last for long.

Additional note: Seeing how Roy Williams has two wings signed in 2014 and is working on Rashad Vaughn as a potential third he clearly knows what he's doing. He made the wing position a 2014 priority, got in early on some solid players including an in-state prospect in Theo Pinson to line up exactly what UNC needs for next season. The problem? He banked on getting at least one more season out of Reggie Bullock and/or P.J. Hairston which was going to work out fine until Hairston's summer escapades.

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