Events and circumstances in the world today can make you believe that we live in an ugly place. But I’ll tell you that there is beauty everywhere, sometimes in places you wouldn’t expect. When I feel down, one thing that always cheers me up is watching clips of some of my favorite UNC players raining 3’s from on high.
Duke is usually thought of first as the three-point shooting team in our illustrious rivalry. Carolina was usually the team that dominated the post. This generalization is fair, (less so in the last four-ish years) but Carolina has featured shooters with some of the smoothest strokes in college basketball. Below are my top five, with one bonus shooter.
5. Reggie Bullock
Reggie Bullock’s three-year career at Carolina was often overshadowed by teammates with higher profiles. He came to Chapel Hill as part of a heralded three-man recruiting class. Harrison Barnes was the headliner and Kendall Marshall would carry much of the plaudits once he took over the team after Larry Drew’s ignominious exit. Reggie seemed like Hawkeye to Kendall’s Captain America and Harrison’s Iron Man. He was a complimentary piece that moved the story along, with exceptional aim.
Reggie’s stroke is an example of minimalist art. He keeps his elbow straight, in a way that your high school coach probably yelled at you to do, but you couldn’t ever comfortably do in real game speed. He gets his elbow and the ball in front of his face, and his shot is a small lever motion with no hitches to fix. He does suffer a little from swinging-feet syndrome, a condition later perfected by P.J. Hairston and Kenny Williams.
4. Marcus Paige
As Malvolio states in Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night,” “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” This quote can be attributed to Marcus Paige’s freshman, sophomore, and senior years, respectively. Marcus’s statistics climbed in every important category from his freshman to sophomore season, but as reinforcements from the 2014 class (the three-headed monster of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Theo Pinson) arrived, some of his shooting and scoring statistics suffered as the burden of carrying the team on his thin frame was taken off of his shoulders.
Marcus’s jump shot was never the prettiest. Sometimes I like to think that if you put a soda can on the ground in front of him, he’d be able to crush it with his foot as he elevated. When in his three-point stance with a tight defender, he would often wiggle around, but didn’t actually move forward or sideways. He’d just stab his foot into the floor and had just enough space to get his shot off.
Sometimes Marcus’s threes were the only form of offense his Tar Heel teams could muster. Never was his shooting as important as it was at PNC Arena in 2014.
Marcus did suffer a fairly precipitous drop in shooting percentage during his senior year, and he did slump towards the end of the regular season and ACC Tournament. But he turned it around in his final NCAA Tournament, culminating in one of the most clutch, but ultimately heartbreaking three-pointers in tournament history.
Let’s move on before I start crying...
3. P.J. Hairston
Oh, what could have been. Before Coach K invented positionless basketball in 2018, Carolina adhered to a fairly rigid construction that required two big men on the floor. During the 2012-13 season, this meant a steady helping of Desmond Hubert on the floor next to a frustrated James Michael McAdoo. A freshman Marcus Paige, who expected to back up Kendall Marshall, was good but not great for an undersized rookie. Reggie Bullock was parlaying a solid, if not significant junior season into a first-round draft position while Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald were stacking bricks on bricks on bricks.
P.J. Hairston was somehow squeezed. When Roy Williams, in a coaching move that seemed out of character at the time, moved P.J. into the starting line-up, his talent was unleashed. P.J. had the bulk to handle some of the rough and tumble of power forward play, but it was when he suddenly found space on the wing that he began to flourish. Big men couldn’t keep up with him along the perimeter, and it’s a good thing they couldn’t! P.J.’s feet would swing so significantly on his jump shot, if a defender was touch tight, they would need soccer shin guards to survive the contact.
BONUS: Kenny Williams
Kenny Williams misses out on top five smoothest strokes status, not for the stroke itself. It looked like a good shot from his waist up. The release was consistent, the wrist had a minimal flick. But his swinging feet were so pronounced, it was reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum.” Also, his actual three-point shooting percentages during his four years at Carolina (.077, .338, .402, .295) were... not the best. Every once in a while, though, you’d see something like this, and wonder, “What if?”
2. Wayne Ellington
Wayne Ellington’s stroke was so smooth, so pure, with parabolic arches that seemed to keep going up once the ball left his fingers, only to splash down through the net in an almost vertical trajectory, similar to a Chinese DF-21. The way that Wayne moved around the court was scattershot, like a ferret hunting for mice. But once he got through his screens and caught the ball on the wing, his frenetic motion would slow significantly as he began his shooting motion.
When Ellington catches the ball, he keeps it in front of his chest. His knees bend in a more pronounced crouch than any of the other players on this list. With both knees bent, he extends both legs to explode upward, rather than planting one foot down like Marcus Paige. His upper body appears slightly hunched forward before his hands begin the shooting motion. On release, there is a brief moment on the follow through where both of his hands are above his head, like he’s hanging from monkey bars at the playground. He’s usually staring at the rim and jogging back on defense by the time the ball goes through the cylinder.
When Wayne got cooking, opposing teams knew that there wasn’t a whole lot they could do to beat the Tar Heels. With Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson dominating the paint, and Ty Lawson getting to the rim and foul line at will, your best bet would be a cold night on the perimeter by Danny Green and Wayne Ellington. When Wayne would rain and drain 3’s with cold disdain, it would bring great shame and pain to teams like Miami in 2011.
1. Cam Johnson
Many high school sharpshooters watch their three-point percentages drop during their freshman year in college. The physical demands of playing at the next level can sap the energy needed to get the leg lift for proper shooting technique. College opponents are older, stronger, and faster. They close out quicker and fight through screens better.
What a luxury it was then to get Cam Johnson as a graduate transfer, and an ACC proven talent to boot! Cam Johnson wouldn’t need any adjustment to the level required at Carolina. He got right to business. And business was good.
At 6-foot-8, Cam Johnson is the tallest player on this list. When he caught the ball or stepped back behind the three-point line, Cam would elevate straight up, uninfluenced by his teammate, the loose-footed Kenny Williams. His shooting hand and guide hand separated upon release, exactly as the coaching handbook demands. His shooting motion is short and in a simple lever motion, with no visible hitches.
During his first year in Chapel Hill, while carrying a hip injury, Cam shot a respectable .341 from three-point range. Once he had arthroscopic hip surgery during the offseason, his second year three-point percentage was an insane .457! His shooting makes him extremely valuable in the modern NBA game, one predicated on spacing and emphasizing the efficiency of high three-point percentage shooters. Cam parlayed his successful two-year stint at Carolina into a somewhat surprising Lottery selection in the 2019 NBA Draft. Wouldn’t you agree, Coby?
A Coby White-Owen Wilson "wow" mashup for you.— Bulls Talk (@NBCSBulls) June 21, 2019
Happy Friday. pic.twitter.com/6OAmYZScaC
There are many shooters that could have (and you might argue should have) made this list. Who would you have added? Who would you have taken off? And who would you want taking the last shot of the game, down two at home to Duke on senior night? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!