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UNC Basketball: The Five Carolina One-and-Dones

North Carolina has seen a different kind of one-year player than college basketball has become used to.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four Championship Game-Gonzaga vs North Carolina Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When Nassir Little and Coby White declared for the 2019 NBA draft earlier this month, they brought the count up to five Carolina one-and-done players in the 16 years under coach Roy Williams, barring a mind change that would go against the available evidence. Little and White joined Marvin Williams (2004-05), Brandan Wright (2006-07), and Tony Bradley (2016-17) as the non-transfer Tar Heels to spend only one season donning baby blue before a jump to the NBA.

In terms of role on their respective UNC teams, this group consists of three sixth men/top reserve forwards (two national champions), one very good third- or fourth-option starter, and one star. Maybe I’m underrating Wright (starter) and/or overrating White (star), but otherwise that seems about right.

Besides merely the small volume of Caroline one-and-done players, this variety shows that they are not central to the program’s elite team building approach. It’s a more traditional approach, maybe, and it makes sense and, most importantly, it works. Williams mines talented multi-year players who get buttressed with occasional jolts of uber prospects, a formula that generally produces a national championship in the third year together of the particular core of long-term players. (Not passing judgment on any of their decisions, but in my opinion 2013 is missing from UNC’s championship cycle only because Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, and John Henson did not return for their third season as a unit and were all chosen in the lottery.)

With that said, here’s a look at the college and pro careers of the three previous and two current one-and-dones from UNC:

Marvin Williams (2004-05)

UNC stats: 36 gp, 0 gs, 22.2 mpg, 11.3 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.1 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.6 topg, 50.6 FG%, 43.2 3P%, 84.7 FT%

Williams was the ultimate spark plug off the bench at UNC. The unassuming 6’9’’ 225-pound kid from Washington was the top-ranked power forward and ninth overall player in the 2004 class, and was the only Carolina one-and-done who’d had the option of going straight from Bremerton High School to the pros.

Williams demonstrated his shooting ability throughout his freshman season, falling a few free throws shy of a 50-40-90 campaign, and flexed his muscles on the block on his way to ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He also had a knack for big offensive rebounds, including arguably the biggest two of Carolina’s championship season. Let’s relive them:

In the final seconds of the regular season finale against Duke, Williams snared an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, banked in a put-back through contact, and made the free throw for a two-point lead that the Heels cashed in on defense for coach Williams’ first win over the Devils. In the national title victory over Illinois, Williams likewise tipped in an errant up-and-under attempt from Rashad McCants to break a 70-all tie with under 90 seconds left. The Illini did not score again and Carolina prevailed with a five-point triumph for coach Williams’ first national championship.

Williams opened the tournament hot with consecutive 20-point games (sound familiar?) in blowout wins over Oakland and Iowa State, then pitched in 16 in a way-too-close-for-comfort Sweet Sixteen victory against Villanova. Williams shot only 1-of-6 from the field in each of the next two rounds – wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State – before coming up huge late in the third takedown of a Big Ten foe for all the marbles.

With a natty in his pocket, Marvin Gaye Williams Jr. decided to forgo his final three years of eligibility and take his talents to the NBA, along with juniors McCants, Raymond Felton, and Sean May. The Heels also lost seniors Jawad Williams, Jackie Manuel, and Melvin Scott. The seven departing players collectively scored 92% of Carolina’s points in 2004-05.

NBA stats: 1,014 gp, 827 gs, 28.6 mpg, 10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 0.8 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.0 topg, 44.3 FG%, 36.2 3P%, 80.7 FT%

Williams parlayed his tantalizing potential into the second overall pick of the 2005 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks. Partly because he was a low-usage freshman with superb athleticism, Williams was viewed as a high-risk, high-reward type of prospect, but then a strange thing happened – his career turned out almost exactly the opposite.

Williams never quite broke out as a NBA star, but he has served as a dependable and consistent contributor for 14 years for the Hawks, Utah Jazz, and now Charlotte Hornets. If you still start for a non-tanking NBA team a decade and a half after being drafted, you are doing something right. Williams has also started 34 of 49 career playoff games, all but seven with the Hawks.

Williams’ best offensive pro season came with Atlanta in 2007-08, when the third-year forward averaged 14.8 points on 46.2% shooting, 5.7 rebounds, and 1.0 steals in a career-high 34.6 minutes. It wasn’t until the next year when Williams was able to develop pro three-point range, and from then he has attempted at least 110 shots from distance each season (and as many as this year’s 382) – more than his first three years combined. Williams has hit at least 35% of 3’s in eight of the last 11 campaigns, and a 40-plus clip twice.

After seven seasons, the Hawks in July 2012 dealt Williams to the Jazz, where he spent two seasons relegated as a low-minutes starter and his production dipped. In July 2014 (the same month Williams completed his UNC degree), he signed a free-agent deal with the Hornets, who re-upped his contract in July 2016. Williams has played in Charlotte ever since at somewhere between his Hawks and Jazz levels. On March 8, he drilled seven 3-pointers and scored a season-high 30 points in a 112-111 win over the Washington Wizards.

Brandan Wright (2006-07)

UNC stats: 37 gp, 37 gs, 27.4 mpg, 14.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.0 spg, 1.8 bpg, 1.6 topg, 64.6 FG%, 56.7 FT%

Coach Williams stole the Nashville native Wright from right under then-Memphis coach John Calipari’s nose in 2006. Wright is the only player in the history of Tennessee high school basketball to win three “Mr. Basketball” titles and he led Brentwood Academy to four straight state championships, winning MVP of the tournament each time. He was the top-ranked power forward and third overall prospect.

When Wright arrived in Chapel Hill, he showed exactly why he earned all those accolades. He was an excellent finisher and incredibly efficient, posting the highest field goal percentage in the ACC and the highest ever mark for an ACC freshman until Duke’s Zion Williamson this past season. He and McCants are the only UNC freshmen in history to score in double figures in each of their first 18 games. Wright shot a significantly higher mark from the field than the free-throw line.

Wright was also a force on the defensive end, using his quick feet, sharp instincts, and 7’5’’ wingspan to cover ground and block nearly two shots per game and alter many others. Following Williams and Tyler Hansbrough, Wright was the third Tar Heel in a row to win ACC Rookie of the Year. He finished second on the Heels to Hansbrough in scoring and rebounding and was also voted All-ACC second team and the MVP of the ACC tournament.

Wright was part of probably coach Williams’ best Carolina recruiting class along with fellow studs Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington (not to mention Deon Thompson and Will Graves), who stayed through their junior seasons and won it all in 2009. Their first two seasons ended in heartbreak, but Wright helped extend the first campaign longer than it could have lasted with his 21-point, nine-rebound effort that led the charge in digging the Heels out of a 16-point second-half hole against USC in the Sweet 16.

That was Wright at his finest in East Rutherford, slithering through the lane for smooth finishes and put-backs in a jersey and shorts that always looked two sizes too big for his wiry 6’10’’ 200-pound frame.

NBA stats: 428 gp, 62 gs, 16.2 mpg, 7.0 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 0.5 spg, 1.0 bpg, 0.5 topg, 60.7 FG%, 67.4 FT%

Wright declared for the 2007 NBA draft and was selected with the eighth overall pick by the then-Charlotte Bobcats, who traded him that night to the Golden State Warriors. His pro career to some extent has been defined by injuries and he was set back from the get go, as an injured hip flexor prevented Wright from playing in his first summer league and limited him to only 38 games his rookie year. The next season, he suffered a dislocated shoulder, and then a damaged left shoulder capsule during a preseason practice cost him all of 2009-10.

Wright did enjoy three multi-year stints in his NBA career, which appears to be over after a final cup of coffee with the Houston Rockets in a 15-minute, four-point outing on February 25, 2018. The first was 98 games over two-plus years (and the injured year) with Golden State. After a trade deadline deal to the then-New Jersey Nets for 16 games, Wright signed as a free agent in December 2011 with the defending champion Dallas Mavericks, where he played at his highest overall level for three-plus seasons before another midseason trade to the Boston Celtics.

After just three weeks and eight games, the Celtics shipped Wright to the Phoenix Suns, where he played a career-high 21.5 minutes in a stretch of 40 out of 41 games to finish the 2014-15 season. In July 2015, Wright signed his last big free agent deal for three years and $17.1 million with the home state Memphis Grizzlies, then promptly injured his knee and played in only 12 games. He scratched together 55 games over the next two seasons coming off arthroscopic ankle surgery before Memphis let him go in February 2018 and Wright made his one-game cameo with the Rockets.

Wright obviously never dreamed of being an NBA journeyman when he left three years on the table at UNC as a lottery pick, but injuries and an evolving game mostly did him in. A true back-to-the-basket big man with a limited face-up game, Wright did not attempt a single 3-pointer in his college or NBA career. Those players are an endangered species these days, and Wright always lacked the strength to compensate as a truly dominant force down low.

But he fought hard to come back time after time and compiled a respectable pro career. Over 11 years, Wright was healthy enough to play in only 428 of a possible 902 (47.5%) regular season games. He appeared in 12 postseason contests.

Tony Bradley (2016-17)

UNC stats: 38 gp, 0 gs, 14.6 mpg, 7.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 0.7 topg, 57.3 FG%, 61.9 FT%

A 6’10’’ 235-pound load in the paint, Bradley arrived at Carolina as the third-ranked center and 25th overall player in the 2016 class. Entering the year, there was a lurking possibility that Bradley might eventually be considered a one-and-done talent, but it wasn’t a serious threat until he took the floor and soon flashed his smooth and skilled operation in the low post.

Bradley scored in double digits in each of his first six games, then did so in only seven of the ensuing 32 outings as he settled into a role as the third UNC big. Bradley also scored only 22 total points over the final five games of the NCAA tournament, while his mid-range jumper gradually abandoned him over the course of the season and he might have been slowed by a December concussion.

Still, Bradley was an excellent rebounder with strong hands and one of the best post players in college basketball’s recent memory at keeping the ball high and out of the reach of guards. Like Wright, he was a handful to deal with down low and adept at finishing around the rim with either hand.

Despite never scoring more than 13 points against a Division I team as a Tar Heel (he put up 14 in a blowout of D-II Chaminade), Bradley declared for the 2017 NBA draft, forever a national champion. He didn’t initially hire an agent, but ultimately decided to remain in the draft.

NBA stats: 12 gp, 0 gs, 5.4 mpg, 2.1 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.3 topg, 40.7 FG%, 75.0 FT%

Bradley squeaked into the end of the first round, going 28th overall to the Los Angeles Lakers just within the threshold for guaranteed contracts. He missed an opportunity to begin his career with a legendary franchise when the Lakers traded his draft rights to the Utah Jazz, where Bradley signed and has spent most of his time since with the G League affiliate Salt Lake Stars stuck behind a big league frontcourt of 2018 Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and 12-and-8 machine Derrick Favors.

Bradley has performed very well with the Stars in 44 starts across two seasons, averaging 14.5 points and 8.7 rebounds on 58.4% shooting in 27.7 minutes per game. Curiously, Bradley made 81.4% from the free-throw line in his debut season, but has fallen to 45.2% on fewer attempts this year.

Bradley has time to catch on and prove his worth as an NBA rotation player, especially with a Utah franchise renowned for investing in player development and taking players along slowly. Perhaps the big fella took a step in the right direction on Wednesday night in the Jazz’ regular season finale with many key players resting. While it was essentially a glorified preseason game for Utah with the visitors locked into the West’s No. 5 seed, it was not so much for the now-No. 8 Los Angeles Clippers, who played their full deck and pulled out a six-point win in overtime.

Bradley scored 15 points (7-of-12 from the field), grabbed 10 rebounds, swatted two shots, and plucked two steals in 24 minutes off the bench. He looked a lot like the coast-to-coast menace who spelled fabled Carolina big men Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks for one memorable season.

Nassir Little (2018-19)

UNC stats: 36 gp, 0 gs, 18.2 mpg, 9.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 0.5 spg, 0.5 bpg, 1.3 topg, 48.0 FG%, 26.9 3P%, 77.0 FT%

The highest-ranked UNC recruit since Harrison Barnes was the top dog in 2010, Little arrived at Carolina with much fanfare as the third overall player in the 2018 class. The 6’6’’ 220-pound forward from Florida won MVP of both the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic, and was described by coach Roy Williams as the most explosive player he had ever coached.

Explosive he is. Little enjoyed several acrobatic highlight-reel plays, and in a non-negligible number of games was clearly one of, if not the best, players on the court (Virginia Tech, Miami, Florida State, Iona, Washington, etc.). But Little also had a surprising number of his shots blocked for a player of his athletic ability; despite appearing strong with the ball, he didn’t always seem to get results that would indicate such. Little’s defensive development was also an arduous journey.

But Little brought good energy throughout the season and did improve as it went along. He was playing some of his best ball when he suffered an ankle injury early in a February loss to Virginia, which tripped him up momentarily before he regained top form. Then, he caught the flu just before the Sweet Sixteen loss to Auburn and could only muster four points and three rebounds after combining for 39 points and 11 rebounds in the two first-weekend wins.

Little excelled in two main situations in his UNC stint. One was against zone defenses, when his versatility and decisiveness opened up looks for extra passes and shot-put type floaters. The other was in matchups when Little could play the 4 position and use his superior strength to bully outmatched defenders on the block and get to the free-throw line.

For most of the season, it felt like Little was simultaneously on the verge of breaking out yet so far away from doing so. That’s what makes his NBA projection a fascinating case. More than two months away from selection day, most mock drafts currently peg Little as a mid-first-round pick, with a ceiling at the tail end of the lottery that was once viewed as potentially top-3 last fall.

One promising sign for Little is the interesting analytics suggestion that college free-throw percentage is at least as good a predictor of NBA three-point percentage as college three-point percentage. Little displayed a nice stroke from the charity stripe and appeared better than the 77 percent mark he finished with. His three-point and mid-range jump shots were more haywire, but there is nothing inorganic in his form that would suggest a big hurdle to natural development.

At this point, Little is a bit of a projection as far as the NBA goes. He started organized basketball later than your average draft project and the theory is that because of this, he might be struggle more than your average player to adjust to different levels of the game. In the meantime, his athletic dominance should shine through sooner rather than later while the more mundane components of the game come along to him.

Even with what might look like a mediocre statline, Little's per-40 minute numbers were impressive, and there is a lot to like with Little as a player and young man.

Coby White (2018-19)

UNC stats: 35 gp, 35 gs, 28.5 mpg, 16.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.1 apg, 1.1 spg, 2.7 topg, 42.3 FG%, 35.2 3P%, 80.0 FT%

In terms of pure NBA draft stock, White is the player on this list who improved the most over the course of his freshman season. White was not necessarily viewed as a four-year guy as the third-ranked point guard and 25th overall player in the 2018 class, but most people expected to see him at UNC at least through 2019-20.

Then again, those people might not have realized that White is the leading scorer in the history of North Carolina high school basketball. He didn’t exactly let off the gas when relocating from Goldsboro to Chapel Hill, dropping 33 in a close loss to Texas (only close because of him) on a Thanksgiving Day stage in his sixth career game. That was White’s first of a record three 30-point games for a UNC freshman, which included a pair of ultra-efficient hero-ball games in the Smith Center – 33 points on 11-of-16 shooting in an 88-85 OT win over Miami and 34 points on 9-of-16 from the field in a 93-85 victory over Syracuse.

White didn’t always have his best performances against the best competition, but that was mostly due to hot-and-cold shooting from beyond the arc. It never looked like White was overwhelmed once the New Year rolled around, and he learned to change speeds and get his teammates involved more masterfully as the year progressed. He failed to reach double figures in scoring in only seven of 35 games and just three of 24 in 2019.

White appears to have leap-frogged Little in terms of draft stock and is expected to be drafted in the mid-to-late lottery. Despite relatively short arms, at 6’5”, 190 pounds, White has ideal height for a pro guard, whether that ends up being primarily at point guard or shooting guard. He also has blazing speed that fits the current go-go NBA style and, all things considered, takes relatively good care of the ball.

In other words, I think White has a decent chance to become coach Williams’ first NBA All-Star from UNC and the second in his entire 31-year head coaching career after Paul Pierce out of Kansas. If White were to return to Carolina to refine his game, he could make his way into the top five of a pretty weak 2020 draft. But that probably won’t affect his career trajectory one iota, and he also could blow out his knee before a life-changing pay day.

Alec Jacoby White is ridiculously fun to watch, and soon he’ll be the NBA’s treat.