The point guard position at the University of North Carolina is one of the most signature roster spots in all of sports. Ever since Dean Smith took over the program, the engine of Carolina basketball ran through the man sitting at the “1,” and those players have gone on to have their names revered in lore.
Go ahead, think about it. In about five seconds you can name five point guards who are spoken of in hushed tones. Ford, Black, Smith, Cota, Felton, Lawson, Marshall, Paige, Berry, White, and so on.
How many of you thought the name “Derrick Phelps” at the top of your head, though? I’m going to guess not many, and that’s a shame because he was arguably one of the most important point guards to have ever come to Chapel Hill.
Phelps was a member of the vaunted “Original Fab Five” class of 1990. Phelps, Clifford Rozier, Eric Montross, Brian Reese, and Pat Sullivan all joined a stacked roster that included King Rice, Hubert Davis, and Rick Fox. That 1990-91 season was fun, as the Tar Heels steamrolled their way back to the Final Four for the first time in nearly a decade, only to lose to Roy Williams and Kansas in the semis. The future was bright, though, as Rice would move on and hand the keys on to the Pleasantville, NY native.
A look at the stats for Phelps would give you pause as to why one would consider him under-appreciated. For his whole career he only averaged 7.3 points a game, 4.8 assists, and only shot 32% from behind the arc. Point guards for Carolina are supposed to be some sort of statistical threat, be it a master of the Four Corners, the king of assists, or one of the fastest players on the court. The offense goes through them, and for those players that are spoken of in hushed tones, there is always one stat that you can point to that lets you know the reverence is well deserved. Phelps doesn’t have that, does he?
Actually, he does. 132 games played and 102 games started. The only season he played under ten minutes a game was 1990-91, and that was because some dude name King Rice was a senior starter. Even then, Phelps still averaged almost ten minutes a game, and then from 1991 on, when he played, he would average nearly 30 per. In other words, that stat tells you that despite Phelps playing with the bigger names of Hubert Davis, Donald Williams, George Lynch, Jerry Stackhouse, and Rasheed Wallace, and Eric Montross, Dean Smith knew they were nothing without the steady hand of Phelps dictating the offense and directing the flow.
In 1993, Phelps was injured heading to the basket in the ACC Tournament against Virginia. The next day, Carolina had their path cleared out for them for an easy championship by taking out Georgia Tech, but without Phelps, the Tar Heels lost 77-75. The Jackets were only the sixth seeded team in a nine team league, but trying to cobble together a starting point guard out of the likes of Donald Williams and Henrik Rodl just wasn’t enough for the Tar Heels. Much like Ty Lawson’s toe in 2009, fans were relieved when the NCAA Tournament started and Phelps had recovered.
How much did Phelps buy in? Take a look at the infamous play from the ‘93 title game. George Lynch was known as the warrior and shadows Weber the whole time, but look who’s waiting at half court and springs the trap that forces the timeout.
Yup, Phelps. He was ready to defend the player bringing it up the court, knew to spring the trap when Weber started heading to the sideline, and didn’t need to look to the sideline as they were all screaming about the missed travel call. That instinct was just a small slice of what he brought to the court each night, deftly reading the floor and directing the movement of the offense for the best option. One night Eric Montross was the star, the next it was Donald Williams. Phelps could see who defenders were giving space to and made sure they got their chance, meanwhile on defense, opposing point guards hated seeing that 14 in their space.
1994 goes down as a disappointment because the squad that won it in ‘93 only lost Lynch and added Stackhouse, Wallace, and Jeff McInnis to the squad, and yet they lost in the second round. Stories abound over team strife, the freshmen not accepting their new roles, the seniors wanting to enjoy the earned benefit of being seniors, and that the team generally fell apart at the end of the season.
Yet, that same team won the 1994 ACC Championship. easily beating Virginia and even playing to the point where Stackhouse was named the MVP. How could a team that was that dysfunctional cobble together three wins in a row to take down one of the most difficult tournament titles to get? The answer is that by the time the post season hit, the Tar Heels had figured everything out and were ready to take the NCAA’s by storm, including taking it all down in their home state.
Then they played Boston College in the second round.
Danya Abrams clobbered Phelps as he went in for a layup. Phelps suffered a concussion so bad that in 1994 he couldn’t get himself back in the game. McInnis, who would later play a pivotal role in getting the ‘95 squad to the Final Four, wasn’t ready for the lead spot, and the Tar Heels fell apart.
If Phelps doesn’t get hurt, the Tar Heels just have to get by Indiana and Florida before they would see Duke in the Final Four National Semifinals. This was the same Duke team that while things were “dysfunctional,” the Tar Heels swept earlier in the season. Then, with effectively a home court against Arkansas? Who knows.
Phelps is one of the few Tar Heels to have multiple Final Fours to his resume, as well as the national title, and yet point guards who had accomplished a lot less are more revered than him. Yet, in both the ‘93 ACC Tournament and the ‘94 NCAA Tournament, Carolina showed exactly how important he was. Despite all the talent on the floor, without Phelps, the Tar Heels lost to Georgia Tech and Boston College. He was involved in one of the most important plays in Carolina history, and yet most fans have to go deep into their memory banks to list him as one of the best.
It’s time Derrick got his due. Maybe he’s not the best point guard in Carolina history, and maybe he’s not the most important, but Carolina isn’t the same without him.