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A Tar Heel Preview of the 2021 NBA Season

We’ve still got a couple of weeks before college basketball begins, but the NBA season has started and quite a few Heels are in action

Sacramento Kings v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

When I was growing up in the aughts, the NBA was being stereotyped as a league that was too superstar-driven for its own good — a league where defense didn’t matter and all the best teams relied on their best players calling isos and hoping for the best. It wasn’t wholly unearned, with guys like Kobe and AI being the faces of the league, but it obviously wasn’t all the way true, either, with the Pistons and Spurs winning championships playing team ball, several teams being elite on the back of their bigs rather than guards, and people like Steve Nash, Chris Paul, and Jason Kidd existing and being among the best distributors in the history of the league. Still, growing up in North Carolina, the NBA took a backseat to college ball for basically that reason, that college ball was where you went to watch basketball for the better version of the sport, rather than getting the [Insert Player] show.

We’re now in the year 2021, not in the mid-2000’s, and yet for some reason, I see way too many UNC fans on the internet clinging to this image of the NBA for reasons they proudly don’t watch it, and I’m here to tell you, if you’re one of them, that those words couldn’t be more wrong. The NBA has evolved massively in the past 15 years, and contrary to popular belief, it hasn’t just been the three-point revolution, though that’s part of it. Teams’ assist numbers and ratios are higher than they’ve ever been, defensive systems are more complex and team-focused instead of just being man-to-man and a prayer, the overall tempo of the league has increased, and the emphasis of every team in the league is to get the best shot on every possession — it is, without a doubt, the best form of spectator basketball in the world for a neutral observer.

Those last two words are important, though, and that’s what this guide is going to be for: helping you, somebody who wants to watch more basketball, find yourself some rooting interests in the NBA based on your Tar Heel fandom. You probably remember most of the Heels in the league getting there, but might not know how they’re doing, so I’m going to tell you, and hopefully your subsequent viewing experiences will be enhanced with the inimitable flavor of fandom.

There are currently 11 former Tar Heels in the NBA, including 2021 draftee Day’Ron Sharpe. Here’s where they are and what to expect from them and their teams, in alphabetical order by player:

Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic

Anthony had a first year in the NBA that was kind of similar to his lone year in Chapel Hill: moments of individual brilliance, including two pretty unbelievable game-winners, and some promise for his future, but overall fairly inefficient and leaving you wanting more. After dealing with a small injury to start the year, he took the starting point guard spot late-ish in the season for a Magic team that was, put charitably, in the beginning stages of a rebuild, and averaged 13 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists per game on under 40% shooting and 34% from three-point range. He had a strong preseason this year and enters the season as the Magic’s starting point guard, but with Markelle Fultz on his way back from injury and rookie Jalen Suggs’ pedigree, he may not keep the role if he isn’t aggressive enough in owning it. In his first game, a lopsided loss to the San Antonio Spurs, he was 3/12 (1/7 from outside) for 10 points and added 5 rebounds and 4 assists — that won’t do it. Whether or not he starts, though, he’s a key piece to a team that’s still probably a year or two away from the playoffs.

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings

For most of his career, Barnes was known as a slight disappointment, a good basketball player but an offensive black hole who didn’t seem to fit on either the Golden State or Dallas rosters and ultimately didn’t contribute to winning basketball. Since being traded to Sacramento, though, a combination of community activism and Luke Walton seems to have transformed him into one of the NBA’s best locker room guys and a real team asset. He’s maintained excellent three-point shooting while increasing his percentage inside the arc as he decreases the level of difficulty inside the arc, his assist numbers are higher, and he’s become at least a net neutral defender, and he’s also found a home as a small-ball stretch 4. He’s now an excellent complement to the Kings’ guards as they try to make a run for the playoffs.

That’s how this preview would have read before the season, before Barnes opened the Kings’ season with a historic performance: 36 points on 10/19 shooting (8/10 from beyond the arc), 9 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 steals, no turnovers, no fouls, and a last-possession win against the Portland Trail Blazers. It’s the first time since the NBA has been tracking turnovers that a player has scored over 35 points and not registered a foul or turnover. Luke Walton went on record after the game saying he wants Barnes taking 8 threes a game, so we might see Barnes take a bigger complementary role this season if he remains this good at it. Here, have a highlight tape:

Tony Bradley, Chicago Bulls

After a productive season backing up Joel Embiid in Philadelphia for one half and backing up Moses Brown in Oklahoma City for the other, Bradley finds himself in Chicago for his latest stop, where he has a chance to make an impact on a team that could make some noise in the East after revamping heavily in the post-GarPax era. Bradley’s carved out a niche as a defensive center with good mobility, good hands, and skill around the rim to finish at a high rate when he gets the ball, though he’s not an offensive creator for himself or others. He slots in as a good backup big for a good team, and that’s what the Bulls will want him to be. We’ll have to wait to see how he does, though, as he sat out Chicago’s first game with a lower back strain.

Reggie Bullock, Dallas Mavericks

After helping carry the New York Knicks to an unexpected #4 seed in the East last year with 11 points a game on 44% shooting (41% from 3), Bullock went on the free agent market and signed a 3-year, 30-million dollar contract with the Dallas Mavericks, promising them a 3-and-D wing who could make good on Luka Doncic’s playmaking with low usage on the offensive end and help the Mavs out on defense. His first game didn’t inspire much for him, with just 15 minutes played and 3 points, but he’s also working his way back from some personal issues that kept him out of part of the preseason, so I expect to see him feature more prominently as the season goes on.

Ed Davis, Cleveland Cavaliers

Davis isn’t the longest-tenured Heel in the NBA, but he is probably the one who’s closest to the end of his career. He’s only played spot minutes and injury relief in the past two seasons, and it seems like teams are bringing him in more as a veteran locker room presence and mentor, roles for which he’s pretty well-renowned in the league, than as a player. The Cavs brought him in on a non-guaranteed contract seemingly to provide Jarrett Allen and first-round pick Evan Mobley with some guidance and knowledge about playing big in the league, and hopefully both of them gain something from him as the Cavs work towards building a contender with some intriguing young pieces.

Wayne Ellington, Los Angeles Lakers

Ellington, after being possibly the only player who made the Detroit Pistons watchable last year, signed a minimum salary to join what has to be the deepest bench in basketball. It’s unclear how much he’s going to play, especially after starting the season with a hamstring injury, but his sharpshooting is an aid to any team, so he’ll probably feature at least a little bit in the Lakers’ bid for a championship.

Danny Green, Philadelphia 76ers

Green isn’t the lockdown defender he was in his prime, but he was a reliable, low-usage starter and shooting wing for the 76ers last year and starts out this season presumably in the same role, albeit for a team without a firmly entrenched point guard amid all the Ben Simmons drama. He averaged almost 10 points per game last year on 40.5% shooting from 3 and added 4 rebounds, and I expect to see his numbers and minutes go down slightly as his presumable successor Matisse Thybulle (who’s mentioned Green as an invaluable resource on how to play defense in the NBA) gets more and more comfortable as an NBA player, but there’s no question he’s an important part of a team that’s hoping to remain around the top of the East.

Cam Johnson, Phoenix Suns

After two years of able support and a playoffs where he rose to prominence in a run to the NBA Finals (and also dunked all over PJ Tucker), Johnson might be taking a step forward as far as his role with Phoenix. He’s definitely the less heralded of the Suns’ two young wings, as Mikal Bridges is a young star and recently signed a big-time extension, but he’s clearly valued by the organization and has worked his way into more minutes and earned the trust of Monty Williams to take more shots. Based on the Suns’ first game, a loss to the Nuggets, Johnson might be the Suns’ sixth man this year — he had the most minutes off the bench and took 10 shots, scoring 11 points on 4/10 shooting (3/5 from 3). His inside-the-arc game has usually been pretty good, so I think he’ll get better as the season continues, and establish himself as a valuable piece of one of the league’s best teams.

Nassir Little, Portland Trail Blazers

This kind of feels like a now-or-never year for Little, who’s had a rough start to his NBA career. Not only did he get hospitalized with COVID-19 early on in the pandemic, but he had a lot of his presumed development minutes vultured by an end-of-career Carmelo Anthony who coach Terry Stotts respected too much to sit even when it might have been deserved. In some garbage time minutes, Little showed off really a high work rate, an improved stroke from three, and strong defensive potential, but he still hasn’t really been tested against competition that’s actually trying. This year, with Carmelo down in Los Angeles and Chauncey Billups installed as the new head man, Little’s got a situation he can take advantage of, and was talked about as the Blazers’ hardest worker and most likely player to break out this season after his offseason. He didn’t look great in preseason, but in Portland’s first game, the aforementioned loss to the Kings, he looked way better, playing 16 minutes off the bench and scoring 7 points on 3/5 shooting (1/1 from three), many in key moments late, and grabbing 3 boards, two on the offensive end. With his defensive acumen and the Blazers’ defensive shortcomings on the perimeter, he’s definitely made a bid for more playing time, and I hope it’s answered.

Day’Ron Sharpe, Brooklyn Nets

Sharpe, drafted 29th for Brooklyn after one season off the bench in Chapel Hill, doesn’t figure to see much of the court in Brooklyn for one of the league’s most stacked rosters. Right now, he’s got a hurt toe, but as soon as he’s healthy, I expect he’ll spend most of the season in Westchester with the Nets’ G-League affiliate, getting up to NBA speed for a team that can afford to use a first-round pick on later rather than now. Assuming the Nets make the playoffs even without Kyrie Irving, we might see Sharpe in spot minutes then.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

White’s career suffered a major setback this offseason when he injured his shoulder so badly it needed surgery, putting him out of basketball activities for four months. That timetable has extended a bit, and we might not see Coby until December when the original goal was mid-November. Once he gets back to basketball, though, he should have a new and simplified role on a new-look Bulls backcourt. With Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso manning the point, White should serve as the Bulls’ second unit’s primary scoring option, backing up Zach LaVine and not having to focus on being a ballhandler or facilitator, roles he came into the league wanting to fulfill but that just haven’t clicked for him. Based on the Bulls’ first game of the season, there isn’t really anybody on their bench who can get points on command, and Coby White is certainly a guy who can change that, and with it, probably the outlook for the Bulls’ season. He just has to get healthy.