Last night’s NBA draft was one of the stranger drafts in recent memory. Multiple pre-draft rumors and gamesmanship gave way to multiple pre-draft trades. Those trades ultimately made almost all of the incessant mock drafts utterly pointless.
However, by the end of the night the North Carolina men’s basketball program was able to add three more first round selections to its illustrious history. Coby White, Cameron Johnson, and Nassir Little accounted for the 50th, 51st, and 52nd first round draft picks in Tar Heel history. It was the fourth time that Roy Williams has had three or more first round picks in a single season, after the draft classes of 2005, 2009, and 2012.
Coby White, Chicago Bulls
Coby White was the first to find a future home when the Chicago Bulls selected him with the seventh overall pick. White was largely considered a top-10 pick with an outside chance at the top-5. The New York Knicks, who had the 3rd pick, even brought White in for an evaluation yesterday before the draft. As it turned out, most of the trades cancelled each other out when it came to White’s final destination, and he fell to the exact range many analysts predicted a month ago.
White is the first North Carolina player taken by the Bulls in the first round since Michael Jordan. (The Bulls also took UNC sharpshooter Shammond Williams in the second round of the 1998 draft). That distinction will undoubtedly bring some comparisons to the GOAT, but most importantly for Coby and the Bulls is that he fills an immediate need at the point guard position. He’ll play early and often as he attempts to bring the Bulls back to national relevance.
White wasn’t expecting to be a one-and-done player, but a superb freshman year exceeded most expectations. He finished the season averaging 16.1 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4.1 assists. That was enough for NBA teams to come calling.
Judging by the reaction at the Bulls Draft Party, their fan base was thrilled with the selection.
After he was selected, Coby spoke with ESPN Radio. At the end of the interview he had just one message for coach Roy Williams.
Coby White on ESPN radio:— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) June 21, 2019
“Anything you want to say to Roy Willams?”
“Tell him I dadgum did it.”
Cameron Johnson, Phoenix Suns (via Minnesota)
A few minutes later, Cameron Johnson was selected with the 11th overall pick for the Phoenix Suns (via the Minnesota Timberwolves) due to a pending trade agreement. This was one of the more surprising picks of the night, as Johnson was expected to be a late first round pick. The Suns clearly had other plans, deciding they needed a pure shooter to help space the floor for Devin Booker and DeAndre Ayton.
Johnson is one of the more compelling storylines in the draft. The oldest player in 2019’s lineup, he wasn’t even on draft boards after last season, and certainly not in the first round conversation. An offseason hip surgery allowed him to play at full strength for the first time in his college career. He made the most of his opportunity and shot 45.7% from three. As we see every April and June in the NBA playoffs, the league is increasingly reliant on three point shooting. Fortunately for Cam, 6’9 pure shooters are a rarity and thus, highly sought after.
The Suns may have reached for him at the #11 spot, but there is no doubt that he’ll be expected to contribute immediately. NBA teams are currently in the midst of its worst 5-year performance of drafting productive players, as Tom Haberstroh explored earlier this week. A possible fix to that issue is drafting older, more experienced players who may not have as much top-tier potential but are more of a known commodity. 2018 Rookie of the Year (and four-year player at Virginia) Malcolm Brogdon is a recent example. Johnson will attempt to follow in those footsteps.
Johnson’s draft status was so murky that he didn’t even go to New York. Instead, he opted to spend the evening in Pennsylvania with family and friends. Check out the moment they all received the news.
The celebratory scene at the Moon Township home of Cameron Johnson as he learns he was selected with the 11th pick of the #NBADraft2019, making the OLSH, Pitt and North Carolina product the first WPIAL player to be a first-round pick since 1997. pic.twitter.com/9Lwqdl0mHN— Kevin Gorman (@KGorman_Trib) June 21, 2019
Oh, and if you missed it, Coby’s unbridled joy for Cam is must-see TV.
Nassir Little, Portland Trailblazers
Finally, Nassir Little was drafted by the Portland Trailblazers with the 25th pick. There’s no way to pretend Little’s night wasn’t disappointing. A consensus top-5 overall recruit in the 2018 high school class saw, his draft stock dipped during the season as he settled into a reserve role behind Johnson and Luke Maye. Reports of strong performances during and after the NBA Combine seemed to alleviate concerns. His name slowly crept back into the lottery as most mocks had him hovering around the top-10.
Whether it was the trades shaking up the overall order, the randomness of the draft, or legitimate concerns about Little’s NBA prospects, those predictions did not come to fruition. The Blazers finally stopped the slide. They’ll bring Little to the West Coast to help bolster their bench as they make another run in the Western Conference next season.
Truthfully, this selection may be a blessing in disguise. Whereas Coby and Cam have proven their ability to produce on a nightly basis and will be expected to perform right away, Little was largely seen as a fairly raw, insanely athletic project. He played the least minutes of any of the college players drafted in the first round this year, and the questions about his game that led to this – shooting, decision making, basketball IQ — aren’t answered by just rolling the ball out. Those concerns could partially explain why some of the lottery teams shied away. Many of those teams need impact players that can help win right now and there may not have been enough teams that aren’t convinced Nassir can do that in his first year or two.
An environment that can afford to be patient while he matures and develops on the perimeter is what Little likely needs for long term success. That’s the kind of environment that awaits him in Portland. While he’s adjusting to the NBA game, he can rely on his relentless energy and athleticism to augment Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum as the Blazers look to improve on this past season’s Western Conference Finals appearance.
Make no mistake, though. Getting Little with the 25th pick is an absolute steal.
If you thought that Cam Johnson and Nassir Little would effectively trade places on draft night, go play the lottery. Right now. Go. Regardless of how it played out, the Heels saw three former players drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft. That’s always worth celebrating.
Many will focus on Little’s struggles to feed whatever narratives exist about Roy Williams holding players back. Fine. Whatever. Those people are idiots. Ignore trolls. Or point out that Little literally played behind a returning All-American who averaged a double-double as a senior (Maye) and a sharpshooting lottery pick (Johnson).
Those same people will ignore the trajectories of Cam and Coby. It can’t be understated that North Carolina’s program effectively resuscitated any dreams Cam Johnson had of even playing in the NBA, much less becoming a lottery pick. He’s guaranteed north of $6 million over his first two years. That doesn’t happen if he stays at Pittsburgh. It may not happen at any school other than North Carolina.
Coby’s ascent was also memorable, as Roy gave full control of the offense to a freshman point guard for the fifth time in his 16 years at UNC. Four of those five point guards were eventually drafted – Marcus Paige, Kendall Marshall, Ty Lawson, and now Coby White. (Bobby Frasor was the fifth point guard, starting every game in 2006). Three of those have eventually been drafted in the first round (White, Lawson, Marshall).
That’s one helluva coaching job by Roy and the coaching staff. Just five more months until we get to start it all over again.
Congrats to Nassir, Coby, and Cam. Thanks for the memories. We all look forward to seeing you around Chapel Hill in the off-seasons.