Last week, The Debate questioned if a new basketball era had dawned in Chapel Hill. Readers generally seemed to believe that with an ongoing expectation of success, the future was bright and the era of nationally competitive play would continue for the Tar Heels. Such optimism proved all the more appropriate by the end of the week following the incredible recruiting news of Cole Anthony, Anthony Harris, and Christian Keeling.
As always, readers are encouraged to join in through the comments and point out what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we never thought of. Also, please feel free to provide suggestions for future topics so we can cover what interests readers and what information is needed to ensure victory when debating slow-witted friends who don’t read the articles! Now, on with the show.
The Debate for the week of April 29: Was Coby White the most important Tar Heel basketball player of the last decade?
In a whirl of a freshman (and only) year, Coby White averaged over 16 points and 4 assists per game, shot 35% from three, and 80% from the free throw line. He scored more points in his freshman year than Michael Jordan. In a team full of senior leadership, he became the on-court general and the go-to scorer. He also made a lot of fans.
White’s impact on the program, however, will have a much longer term than his all-too-brief stint in uniform.
On October 13, 2017, the NCAA finally concluded the multi-year investigation into alleged academic improprieties at North Carolina. Nassir Little had already committed to North Carolina (October 4). Coby White was the first recruit to sign after the news on November 8. Leaky Black signed on November 9. Collectively, they were an outstanding recruiting class and represented what Roy Williams could do without the cloud of investigation hanging over the program. They started a new era in recruiting.
White was not the highest ranked player in the class. A McDonald’s All American and the leading high school scorer in the history of the state of North Carolina, White was the third ranked point guard and 25th overall player nationally. He appeared to be a multi-year player in Chapel Hill. Those expectations were inaccurate.
White quickly earned his way into the starting lineup and developed throughout the year. Sure, there were rough spots and missed opportunities, but White excelled to the point that he is now widely anticipated to be a top-10 pick in the NBA Draft.
So why is this so important to the program? In the last 10 years, North Carolina has only had three one and dones. Tony Bradley was drafted a bit lower than his recruiting rankings. Nassir Little will also likely be drafted below his top-three recruiting ranking. Perhaps this is a tired narrative, but the fact is that players under Roy Williams have not developed quickly enough in their freshmen years to elevate their draft stock. Whether due to playing time opportunities or a deference to upperclassmen, it is a common theme that is certainly used by opponents on the recruiting trail.
Coby White proved that narrative wrong. His development and success could set the tone for years to come as the best high school players make their collegiate choices. For these reasons, he is the most important player of the decade.
Counterpoint: While very good, the contributions of others have outweighed White’s.
In the ten years since the Tyler Hansbrough era ended, there have been a number of highly skilled and successful basketball players at Carolina. Picking the one that has had the single-biggest impact on the program should be more than just eliminating a negative connotation in recruits’ living rooms. For as great as Coby White was last year, his team exited in the Sweet Sixteen.
The most important player to the program should be someone who developed throughout his career, whose teams were highly successful on the court, and who has continued that success at the next level. That person is Justin Jackson.
Justin Jackson was the 8th-ranked recruit nationally when he came to Chapel Hill. Through his three years, Jackson continually improved. He went from 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game as a freshman to 18.3 and 4.7 as a junior. He was the ACC Player of the Year and a first team All-American. His teams made the Sweet Sixteen once and National Championship game twice, winning it all in 2017. He was a force on the floor with a floater that was virtually unstoppable.
Following the national title, Jackson declared for the NBA Draft and was selected 15th. He is currently playing for the Dallas Mavericks where he averaged just under 10 points per game for the season. Ironically, his player bio lists his favorite prior Tar Heel as Harrison Barnes, the player he was traded to Dallas for.
Jackson was a highly-ranked recruit who excelled at Carolina, won a national championship, left early for the NBA, and has had a solid early professional career. He is the most important Tar Heel of the last decade.
Time for you to decide! Is Coby White the most important Tar Heel basketball player of the decade? Is it Justin Jackson? What other players make good candidates for this made-up honor? Weigh in below!