Folks, it’s official. UNC’s mojo on the recruiting trail is returning, and as that great Durham Bull Nuke Laloosh might say, they are to about announce their presence with authority.
The 2017 class has received verbal commitments from PG Jalek Felton and SG Andrew Platek. The 2018 class has received verbal commitments from two additional combo guards in Coby White and Rechon Black.
On the surface, their commitments don't seem like much. Their rankings are currently scattered from a top 20 combo guard (Black), to an outside the top 200 three point specialist (Platek). Depending on what scouting service is most up to date, White's rankings are scattered between 20 and 60.
So, I'm not going to waste too much time on their skills, stats, or vital signs. You can find those anywhere and recruits always look great (or terrible) on paper. Just take note that they are all guards, and with the exception of Platek, have a diverse set of skills. That’s important as we take a deeper look at the recruiting situation.
Instead, there are a few other major takeaways.
Early Recognition, Early Commitments
First, the coaching staff is targeting early and often. In return, those recruits are committing faster than UNC has become accustomed to the last few years. This is a stark departure from recent recruiting cycles where UNC was scrambling towards the end of various signing periods to fill out its class.
Yes, the 2015 class of Luke Maye and Kenny Williams was underwhelming. In large part because there just weren’t scholarships to give. By all accounts, they are great teammates and are going to develop into invaluable four-year contributors. But, if we’re honest with ourselves, UNC was going to struggle to get top-tier talent that year anyway. That in itself is frustrating, but one year wasn’t going to be insurmountable.
Last year wasn’t much better until the very end once it became clear that NCAA sanctions were very likely not going to affect men’s basketball. The staff was able to put together a more-than-respectable class, highlighted by Tony Bradley, with some great complementary pieces for this year’s team. If any of the three freshmen are able to become key contributors this season, then this team may be scarier than last year’s. The potential is certainly there.
More importantly, the 2016 freshman are in position to become legitimate stars over the next 2-4 years. This will allow UNC to do what it does better than most admit: develop and cultivate talent over time.
In contrast, Platek, a rising senior, waited two months and committed in the middle of the recruiting season. He did not let the rest of the summer play out, even as his stock began to rise. Black, now a rising junior, waited a month before committing mid-way through his sophomore year. White, also a rising junior, waited approximately 72 hours before he verbally committed.
The latter two were in-state recruits at the time. In a talent-laden state like North Carolina, the importance of that cannot be stressed enough, especially with the recent high-profile misses that wound up in Lexington and Durham.
Plus, in all likelihood, both Rechon and Coby are going to find themselves squarely in the top 25 overall rankings for 2018. They will be much more impactful than we realize at this moment in time. The depth at guard is loaded for the foreseeable future. Roy has not whiffed on many recruits over the years, so if he’s offering early and those offers are met with excitement and acceptance, then fans and rivals better heed the warning signs.
Flexibility and Focus
Second, by locking up the 2018 commits, UNC now has much needed flexibility and focus with the remaining 2017 targets. You do not have to be a genius to realize that there are not any big men who have committed for the next two seasons. With some key perimeter pieces in place, UNC can now focus on the interior. It’s important to remember it’s still early in the 2017 process, and most of the names below are not what you would consider a traditional big man in the mold of Sean May, Brendan Haywood, or Tyler Hansbrough. I’ll get to that in just a minute.
Along with 2018 forwards Zion Williamson and Jairus Hamilton, UNC has currently offered scholarships to the following 2017 forwards and centers, followed by their position ranking according to Scout:
Center: Mohammad Bamba (2) and Wendell Carter (3)
Power Forward: P.J. Washington (1)
Small Forward: Kevin Knox (2), Kris Wilkes (4)
That is some hefty talent. With four 2017 scholarships remaining and two post players graduating after this season, there is the possibility of bringing in more than one impact player. There is also plenty of potential playing time available. With perimeter players for 2017 and 2018 in place, UNC can now plan for the right skill sets and mindsets required to mesh effectively. That is important because there is a chance that some of those offered could be one-year players, and as most know, UNC has typically a) avoided or b) missed out on those recruits the past few years.
In reality, I’m not upset over the lack of one-year talent. Since 2005, when the NBA implemented its rule that led to “one-and-done” players, only two NCAA champions have had a one-year player: Kentucky in 2012 (everyone glare at Creighton) and Duke in 2015. Both of those teams STARTED three one-and-done players. It is not the cure-all that so many tend to think.
Yes, it is fun to imagine last year’s team with Brandon Ingram, but would that have allowed Brice Johnson to become the focal point he was? Would Hicks have received the valuable experience that will fuel his growth this year? Would UNC have discovered the small-ball rotation that proved so effective last year and may be even more necessary this year?
I don’t know. There probably isn’t a right or wrong answer. But when talking about “top” talent, it helps to look at all angles. It’s difficult to develop a team if you don’t give players the opportunity to grow.
More importantly, those players are reciprocating UNC’s interest. Many of the top targets have kept UNC on their Twitter-proclaimed short lists after the summer circuits. Granted, that isn’t as meaningful as it once was and lists don’t equal commitments. But that level of mutual respect has been missing the past few years. Because there are roughly 10 months remaining in the 2017 recruiting cycle, that list of names will also likely grow.
Worst case, if UNC misses out on a top prospect, they can stash one of their six scholarships for 2017 and carry it over to 2018. Based on the early commitments of Rechon Black and Coby White, the opportunity for post players to earn immediate playing time, and the rising mutual interest in some of the top recruits, I feel confident the coaching staff and fans will have plenty of reason to celebrate next spring.
Finally, looking more long-term than just 2017, that freedom to maneuver also allows UNC to be flexible with what skill sets it wants to target, not just positions. UNC always has been, and for as long as Williams is coaching, likely will be, a more traditional team with two post players. Roy’s system continues to work and he is a helluva lot smarter than me about basketball. However, there are a thousand different ways to win a game, and other teams have tinkered with different styles as player’s talents become more varied.
The game is evolving. As we enter the third generation of players who have grown up with the three-point line, the 6’9" power forward who can knock down the three, drive, and post up, are becoming more prevalent. North Carolina does not have a tradition of targeting or landing players with that skill set, though fans did get a glimpse of what a “small”-ball line-up can do when Theo covered that role last year. Roy knows what he likes, he knows what works, and he’s clearly not against throwing some wrinkles into his system. However, using it for a change of pace is different than becoming overly reliant.
While I don’t fully expect a system overhaul (yet), if there was a time to entertain more versatility in the lineup, UNC is entering a prime window. With so many scholarships available, they have some freedom to consider talent that can defensively guard the new “power forward” as it becomes more prevalent, while simultaneously stretching opposing defenses. If this sounds like a player you are familiar with, you're right. Kris Jenkins. Perhaps a bit harsh, but no less accurate.
(Ok. Fine. Roy has coached this style of player and system before. Jawad and Marvin Williams were ahead of their time and fit this mold perfectly.)
Yet, UNC hasn’t really landed a player with that kind of ability since...well since Marvin Williams.
Interestingly, a few of the above names *could* fit that role -- Washington/Knox/Wilkes for 2017, and Robinson/Hamilton for 2018. In theory, that kind of player could seamlessly fit into UNC’s offensive system, specifically as the trail/high-post presence. That kind of player would coincidentally fit almost perfectly with the attacking, distributing, slashing, aggressive skills of Felton, Black, and White.
Ladies and gentlemen, the bottom line is UNC's recruiting is on a serious upswing and there is potential for it to get absolutely silly. Roy Williams and his staff have done a phenomenal job of keeping the roster stocked with long-term, low-risk, high-reward talent that allows for patience, growth, and development.
Add top-tier, in-state recruits who commit two years early, because UNC is their dream school. Sprinkle in a generous amount of available scholarships. Mix it with mutual respect and reciprocity from the top recruits in the country. Throw in the opportunity to experiment with different skill sets. Stir it all together, and you get a recipe for a UNC basketball future that is as delectable as we have seen in the last five years.