The men’s basketball team only had three seniors this past season. Those three – Kenny Williams, Luke Maye, and Cameron Johnson – all graduated this weekend. You knew that. What you probably didn’t know was that they were joined by three other Tar Heel basketball alumni.
Caleb Ellis, who was listed as a junior on last season’s roster, appears to have earned his undergraduate degree in three years. If that’s the case, should he decide to hang around Chapel Hill for a post-graduate degree, he still has one more year of eligibility.
Former All-American and ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson also completed his studies. He left UNC after his junior season when he helped lead the Heels to the NCAA Championship in 2017. He was originally drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers before being traded to the Sacramento Kings on draft night. The Kings then dealt him to the Dallas Mavericks this past season. None of that chaos kept him from returning to UNC.
Earlier this week, Jackson explained his reasons for finishing his degree to Eddie Sefko of DallasMavs.com. A promise to his mother drove him to achieve the goal, but his friendship with Kenny and Luke pushed him to finish it so quickly after leaving school. As he told Sefko,
“They are two of my best friends. They were seniors (this year) on the basketball team. So I figured it would be pretty cool if I could graduate with them. That’s why I made that push and tried to finish and it feels good to finally be done.”
Meanwhile, older UNC fans will recognize the sixth Tar Heel to earn his diploma this past weekend. Vasco Evtimov finally finished his studies, 20 years after he left Chapel Hill to play professionally overseas. The Daily Tar Heel ran this piece in February on the Bulgarian-born power forward with the important details.
Congrats to all our @UNC_Basketball graduates today! Special mention of my former teammate Vasco Evtimov, who promised Coach Smith he would graduate. Left UNC in ‘99, played pro for 19 years, came back and finished 20 years later! Coach Smith & Guthridge are smiling down on you! pic.twitter.com/hwwM1Y9tqA— Brad Frederick (@BFrederickUNC) May 12, 2019
Most fans under the age of 30 don’t remember Evtimov, who played as a reserve on the 1997 Final Four team that lost to Arizona. That loss fueled Antawn Jamison to return for a junior season, which would’ve left Evtimov on the bench for another year. With Dean Smith’s blessing, Evtimov took a redshirt year, returned to France and completed a 10-month stint of mandatory military service. With Evtmov in Europe, the Heels came up short against Utah in the 1998 Final Four.
When Evtimov returned for the 1998-1999 season, now playing under Bill Guthridge, he was forced to sit out 18 games. While serving his time with the military, Evtimov had played for a local club team so he could qualify for the French national team. Despite never being paid for his services, the NCAA determined he had earned a competitive advantage because he had essentially been playing against “pro” players. (See, kids, the NCAA has always been insanely moronic!).
That season ended with a first-round loss to Weber State, despite a 13 point and 10 rebound effort from Evtimov. Largely lost to history, and not as well known by most fans, Evtimov’s career is one of the biggest what if’s in UNC lore. Both 1998 and 1999 could have had drastically different endings, had he never taken a (well-intentioned) redshirt.
That summer, the former McDonald’s All-American told Guthridge and Smith that he needed a fresh start and began a real professional career. Before he left UNC though, Evtimov promised Dean Smith that he would come back and finish his degree. As he told the Daily Tar Heel,
“I promised Coach Smith I would like to leave the program and start my professional career in Europe. But then eventually, once I retired from basketball, I would come back and get my degree. And here I am today, you know?”
(Note: For as good as Roy Williams is, there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t sincerely miss Dean Smith)
Evtimov and Jackson also join an exclusive list of former Heels. Jerry Stackhouse, Marvin Williams, Vince Carter, Sean May, Kendall Marshall, Antawn Jamison, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, and J.R. Reid are all former basketball players who have returned and earned a diploma.
Whether the degrees took three years or 20, congrats to these six Tar Heels on their accomplishments.