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UNC Basketball: What does the future have in store for the 2019-20 Tar Heels?

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The offseason is just starting. What’s next?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Midwest Regional-Auburn vs North Carolina Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is less than a week old, but Sunday’s events should have helped speed up the healing process for most. Using that good fortune and positive vibes, it’s time to take a very premature look at what lies ahead for the Heels. The next few months are bound to be a whirlwind of activity as the coaching staff tries to fill the gaps in the roster and high-profile recruits announce their destination.

What is the state of the program now? What lies ahead? Let’s take a quick look.

Graduations

Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams are gone, as are their 1,451 points, 683 rebounds, and 297 assists from this past season. Sure, one could argue that Maye and Williams “struggled” relative to prior season’s production and preseason expectations. Considering the other talent around them (a healthy Cam, emerging Coby White, and versatile Nassir Little), perhaps their ability to adapt and contribute has been wholly under-appreciated through the year.

Regardless, UNC will be missing a dearth of experience and leadership with their departures. It also means three starting positions are officially open. There is a particularly noticeable void on both wings. None of this is a surprise.

NBA Draft

Yesterday’s news confirmed what most expected. Nassir Little will enter the NBA Draft. A surefire starter if he returned next season, North Carolina will miss his explosiveness and athleticism. In just 18.2 minutes per game, he still almost averaged 10 and 5 while playing two (very) different positions. He didn’t quite live up to preseason expectations, (and those “struggles” were magnified by the 2018-2019 preseason/recruiting champions down the road) but his presence was vital to UNC’s success this year. Currently considered a mid-late lottery pick, his decision is perfectly logical.

Coby White, however, has not made a decision. Despite message board chatter and social media proclamations by people who know absolutely nothing, there has been zero indication of White’s intentions. He entered the season as a fringe first-round pick and continued to shoot up draft boards as the season continued. It’s not completely dissimilar to Tony Bradley in 2017, when he entered college with a multi-year plan but developed enough in his one season that NBA teams came calling.

Leading the team with 4.1 assists per game and finishing second in scoring with 16.1 ppg (first in ACC play with 18.1), White’s departure would mean the Heels lose four starters from a Sweet 16 team. For fans, that wouldn’t be ideal. For Coby’s immediate financial security, he’d be doing justfinethankyouverymuch. At a minimum, fans should not be surprised if/when Coby decides to test the waters.

Disclaimer: There are probably equally valid reasons why these two young men should or should not go pro. Everyone has their opinions mixed with anecdotes and facts. Few of those people know the discussions that are being had with coaches, NBA front offices, and families. Each player’s situation and goals are different.

It’s not *their* fault the NBA has a ridiculous rule while simultaneously lacking viable alternatives to the college game to develop future pros. You know, like almost every other major basketball league in the world has figured out. Even if you don’t agree with (or question) a young man’s professional readiness and/or decision to try and get paid, it’s not difficult to support them and thank them for their time in a Tar Heel uniform.

Definitely Returning Players. Probably. Maybe.

Barring any transfers, which UNC has not had since Larry Drew II bolted in 2011, North Carolina will return eight (or nine) scholarship players:

Seniors: Brandon Robinson (SG/SF), Seventh Woods (PG) Shea Rush*
Juniors: Garrison Brooks (PF/C), Sterling Manley (C), Brandon Huffman (C),
Andrew Platek (SG)
Sophomores: Leaky Black (PG/SG/SF/PF/C/Everything), Coby White (PG/SG)**

*Technically on scholarship, but originally recruited as a preferred walk-on. It’s currently unknown if the coaching staff would pull it for another recruit.

**We can all pray, right?

Garrison Brooks is the final returning starter from that list. After playing out of position for two years at center, he should get to spend more of his time at the power forward/trail spot. Known for his defensive prowess, he averaged just 7.9 points and 5.6 rebounds in 23.0 minutes per game.

The next highest returning scorer on that list? Sterling Manley with 3.5 points per game.

Manley missed 18 games with a sore knee, 16 of which were ACC contests. Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods are the only returning reserves that played in every ACC game this past season.

This isn’t meant to throw shade at any of the above players. It’s simply meant to show the lack of production returning. Every year one (or more!) players step into a role and emerge — I still maintain my faith in Sterling Manley — and there is plenty of potential in the returning Heels. It’s just unrealized potential at this point. There’s no way to sugarcoat that. This team has significant questions heading into the off-season.

Incoming Recruits

Recent McDonald’s All-American Armando Bacot is a 5-star, top-25 center. He’s expected to compete for a starting role and add depth to a robust frontcourt with Sterling Manley, Brandon Huffman, and Garrison Brooks.

Jeremiah Francis is a 3-star point guard who hasn’t played in two years due to multiple knee surgeries. Prior to ACL reconstruction and an additional micro-fracture surgery, Francis was a 4-star point guard and hovering in the top-50 of various recruiting rankings. If he’s fully healthy he’ll add some depth to the backcourt.

North Carolina has a minimum of four available scholarships. They could have a maximum of six openings as it currently stands. They have exactly two commits.

Current High School Recruits

There are still three main UNC targets who will announce their college decisions in the coming weeks. Cole Anthony, a top-5 player and best “combo” guard in the country is widely considered to be a future Tar Heel. If that happens, the point guard situation for next year is solved – with or without Coby. He announces on April 20th.

The other two are less certain.

Matthew Hurt, a 6’9 power forward from Minnesota would help bring some additional inside-outside versatility. The 5-star, top-10 recruit will announce on April 19th. Kansas and Duke are considered to be UNC’s top competition.

Precious Achiuwa is a 6’9 wing from Monteverde Academy in Florida. The most tight-lipped of the remaining targets, he could serve as an ideal replacement for Nassir Little. All the buzzwords apply to Achiuwa. Athletic, long, explosive, versatile, *insert your favorite word here*. He has no firm timetable for an announcement, and actually still has three official visits remaining. He has visited UNC and Kansas.

Graduate Transfers

Graduate transfers have become a new(ish) phenomenon in recent years. UNC cashed in on the trend with Cameron Johnson, but that was an anomaly. Most grad transfers don’t have two years of eligibility, nor do they usually transfer within the same conference. North Carolina has also largely eschewed transfers as a whole.

Nonetheless, after the success of Johnson, it’s likely the basketball staff will be more willing to explore graduate transfers for future needs. This upcoming season might qualify as the perfect time to experiment with that idea. With so few high school recruits remaining, players have to come from somewhere.

A cynic would say that a graduate transfer is just an older version of a one-and-done freshman. A one-year rental that hurts long term continuity. There’s probably some truth in that.

However, graduate transfers bring 3-4 years of college experience, maturity, developed skills, and realistic expectations about their professional future. A different mindset can mean a different impact. Whether or not any transfers really pique enough interest for more than a cursory phone call remains to be seen.

What’s Next

We wait.