The 2010’s was an extremely prosperous decade for the North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball program. A national title, two championship games, four Elite Eights, five ACC regular season titles and an ACC tournament title. That’s almost like the entire history for a certain ACC team down the road from Chapel Hill that wears red.
The Tar Heels had eight players named to an All-American team during the decade, a Bob Cousy Award winner (best point guard of the year), two ACC Players of the Year and an ACC Rookie of the Year. So that raises the question: Who was the Player of the Decade for North Carolina?
For all intents and purposes, you could narrow down the list of finalists to seven players who are up for Player of the Decade. But we don’t want to leave anybody out, so here are the honorable mentions, who either didn’t stay around long enough to rack up some accolades, or came on a little too late in their career.
Stats & Accomplishments: 16 PPG, 4 APG; 2018-19 All-ACC Second Team
This is the first tough omission. Had he stuck around for a few more seasons, he likely could have been a finalist. But he is possibly the fan favorite Player of the Decade. He would easily win number one player in our hearts of the decade. White has an argument to be the best scoring guard of the decade, but only being at UNC one season hurt his case.
Stats & Accomplishments: 15 PPG, 5 RPG, 41% 3FG; 2018-19 All-ACC First Team
When Cam Johnson lit up the Tar Heels as a member of the Pitt Panthers, I dreamed that North Carolina would have a shooter of his caliber. Dreams come true. Johnson brought elite shooting to UNC in his two years, especially his final season in Carolina blue. But he didn’t quite do enough in the accolade category to warrant a finalist spot.
Stats & Accomplishments: 7 PPG and 8 APG; Cousy Award winner, 2x All-ACC, AP Third-Team All-American, CBS 1st team All-American
Marshall was the prototypical Roy Williams point guard and we will all forever hate Creighton for robbing North Carolina of a rematch against Kentucky in 2012 in the national title. Marshall is undoubtedly the best passer of the Roy Williams era at UNC and was a better scorer than the stats lead on, but doesn’t provide as many big moments as needed to make the final cut.
Stats & Accomplishments: 10 PPG, 8 RPG, 2.5 blocks per game; 2x ACC Defensive Player of the Year, 2x All-ACC, 2x All-ACC Defensive Team
When talking about most underrated players of the decade, Henson would definitely make the list. His freshman year didn’t live up to the hype, but he was elite during his final two years in Chapel Hill. He was the best shot-blocker of the decade for North Carolina and one could argue for the ACC as well.
7. Brice Johnson
Stats & Accomplishments: 11 PPG, 7 RPG; 2016 NCAA All-Tournament team, 2016 Consensus All-American, 2x All-ACC (2015-16)
Johnson was an absolute beast for North Carolina during his career. He averaged double-figures in his last three seasons, including a double-double in his senior season. The dynamic-duo of Johnson and Marcus Paige was nearly unstoppable. Just ask Florida State, the team that Paige and Johnson combined for 69 points against in 2016. His NCAA tournament run in 2016 where he averaged 19 points and 9 rebounds on 61% (!!) shooting solidified his spot in Carolina history, even if it didn’t end the way we all wanted it to.
6. Marcus Paige
Stats & Accomplishments: 13 PPG, 4 APG; ACC All-Freshman team, 2x All-ACC, Second-Team All-American, 2013-14 ACC Most Improved Player
Having Paige and Johnson right beside each other on the list just feels right. Paige was one of the few bright spots on the 2013-14 UNC team that lost a heartbreaker to Iowa State in the second round. His final three seasons in Chapel Hill were unreal, but the only knock on Paige is that his stats got worse every year following his sophomore year from an average standpoint, as well as an efficiency standpoint. But the one thing that can never be taken away from him is the shot against Villanova. Had that game ended differently, Paige would have an argument to be the number one player on the list.
5. Harrison Barnes
Stats & Accomplishments: 16 PPG, 5.5 RPG; 2x All-ACC, 2011 ACC Rookie of the Year, 2012 Second-Team All-American
The case for Harrison Barnes to be higher on the list would be that despite not having that many accolades, Barnes was one of the most productive on the court. The hype around Barnes was unreal and it was tough for him to live all the way up to the hype, but he did as good of a job as anybody. But the accolades didn’t add up to the talent he was. The lasting memory of Barnes on the court has to be his game winner against Florida State. But the argument could be made for his forty-point game against Clemson in the ACC Tournament. Barnes didn’t rack up enough individual accolades to be higher, but his production solidified him in the top five.
4. Joel Berry II
Stats & Accomplishments: 13 PPG, 3 APG; 2x NCAA All-Tournament Team, NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player, 2x All-ACC, ACC Tournament MVP, Third-Team All-American
In a decade filled with great point guards, Joel Berry stands out among them. When the lights were brightest, Berry elevated his game, as you can see by his two NCAA All-Tournament Team selections. He won Most Outstanding Player in the 2017 Final Four for his effort in the title game against Gonzaga. Berry’s numbers improved every season as he was asked to fill in a bigger role. His tenacity was what set him apart from all the other point guards that North Carolina had this decade. His senior season didn’t end the way that many had hoped after a blowout loss to Texas A&M, but his run in the tournament during his junior season will be what lives in Tar Heel fan’s minds.
3. Luke Maye
Stats & Accomplishments: 10 PPG, 6 RPG; Third-Team All-American, 2x All-ACC, 2018 ACC Most Improved Player
Let’s just take a second and appreciate the fact that a preferred walk-on made the All-Decade list for North Carolina. That is incredible in and of itself. How could we leave the guy who hit the most important shot of the decade off the finalists list? That shot in his sophomore season was the shot that sparked Maye’s ability to be a high-end player for North Carolina. After that, he was great for the Tar Heels. His junior and senior seasons he averaged 16 points and 10 rebounds and was efficient from all over the court. One mark against Maye would be that he failed to perform as well when he played bigger opponents. But in twenty years when people look back on Carolina basketball, it will be impossible to look back on the 2010’s and not think about Luke Maye.
2. Tyler Zeller
Stats & Accomplishments: 13 PPG, 7 RPG; 2012 ACC Player of the Year, 2012 Consensus All-American, 2x All-ACC
Zeller is one of two guys to win ACC Player of the Year during the decade for North Carolina, which sent him flying up the list. His numbers don’t jump off the page, mainly being weighed down by his first two seasons, but Zeller was the prototypical big man under Roy Williams. He ran the court like few ever have and was also an extremely underrated outlet passer. He has a national title to his credit, but it was during 2009 in which he was hurt for a majority of the season. The 2011-12 UNC team was marred by injuries in the tournament, but it was Zeller who still averaged 15 points and 12 rebounds before losing to Kansas in the Elite Eight. In the Sweet Sixteen against Ohio, Zeller racked up 20 points and 22 rebounds. If that isn’t pure dominance, I’m not sure what is. Zeller is slept on in the grand scheme of things, but he deserves this ranking without a doubt.
1. Justin Jackson
Stats & Accomplishments: 14 PPG, 4 RPG; ACC All-Freshman Team, First-Team All-ACC, 2017 ACC Player of the Year, NCAA All-Tournament Team, 2017 Consensus All-American, All-ACC Tournament Team
Behind Harrison Barnes, Justin Jackson came to North Carolina with the most hype of any recruit. Jackson’s freshman season was largely disappointing, despite averaging 11 points and 4 rebounds a game on 48% shooting. But it was Jackson’s ability to shoot the three-pointer that elevated his game during his junior season, leading him to being an All-American. Without Jackson coming back, the 2017 championship team probably does not win it all, because Jackson was the go-to offensive threat on that team. His run in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t get enough credit, averaging 19.5 points per game in the six tournament games. When North Carolina needed a bucket, Jackson was the man to do it. Whether it was the patented floater of his, or knocking down a big three-pointer, Jackson proved to be the elite wing scorer that he was recruited to be.
If you disagree with the list, feel free to sound off in the comments or on Twitter @TarHeelBlog!