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The Dean’s List: A peek at UNC’s future beyond 2020-21

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Only in college basketball does talented youth pose huge, potentially damning questions.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: it’s extremely early to have this conversation. One may wonder then why we are here today discussing the future of the North Carolina Tar Heels, and the answer comes down to one thing and one thing only: it will be a nice break from the emotional roller coaster that this year’s team has sent us on this season. This is also a topic worth bringing up now because we are in uncharted territory as far as UNC teams go. This year’s freshmen class is the deepest, most diverse class that has ever been compiled by Roy Williams in the one-and-done era. Now that UNC fans got what they have been longing for, it’s time to discuss the drawbacks.

We all know by now the down side to having such a young product on the court, as we are currently witnessing it each and every game. The Heels have very raw talent with high ceilings, and with that comes cold shooting nights, turnovers, underestimating opponents, the whole bit. Winning in college basketball isn’t an acquired taste, it’s a developed habit. Don’t let Duke and Kentucky teams fool you: a group of freshmen have to be really, really special for teams to get where they want to go, which for any Blue Blood is the Final Four. This is why Duke and Kentucky teams with mostly freshmen starters won only one national title apiece since OAD began in 2006, which makes the composition of UNC’s 2021-22 roster that much more important.

So the burning question for today is: who can we expect to stay in Chapel Hill for their sophomore (and junior) seasons? To answer that question, we have to start with what the NBA Mock Draft boards are telling us. We took a look at draft boards from NBC Sports, NBADraft.net, CBS Sports, Bleacher Report, and Sports Illustrated for this exercise.

Let’s start with a name that some may have expected to not show up on draft boards: Caleb Love. It goes without saying that Love isn’t having the season that any of us expected, and one can even say he’s been pretty disappointing. So far this season he is shooting 31.1% from the field and has made 23.2% of his three-point attempts. He is also averaging 3.6 assists per game, but it is overshadowed by his 3.3 turnovers per game. So then how could he possibly be showing up on draft boards? To answer that we have to turn to the source.

NBC Sports projects Caleb Love to be the 16th pick in the draft. They still view Love as a dynamic scorer, and they also think his playmaking skills are valuable to whichever team drafts him. NBADraft.net must have similar feelings, as they project the freshman guard to get drafted 20th overall. The problem, however, is there are multiple draft boards that he does not make an appearance on at all. We could likely chalk it up to some of these sites not seeing as many Carolina games as we have (or only saw the Duke game), but the fact of the matter is that Love could work out for NBA teams and impress them enough to get some good feedback. In my opinion, however, I think that any feedback he receives will tell him to stay in Chapel Hill another year. He may have different plans, and that is something to brace yourselves for.

Then there is Day’Ron Sharpe, who shows up on almost every draft board that we took a look at. The general consensus is that Sharpe is a late first-round draft pick, though Sports Illustrated has him going as the 18th pick. The reason why he is the most popular Tar Heel prospect is pretty simple: he’s an excellent rebounder, great passer, has a high motor, and has the potential to print a good amount of posters in his NBA career. There’s nothing but upside with him, and once he realizes just how big and strong he actually is, he could perhaps be the most dominant Tar Heel NBA big we’ve seen in a long time. All signs point to Sharpe heading to the league after this season, but there’s a reason to breathe easy when it comes to Tar Heels remaining on the roster.

Armando Bacot, Walker Kessler, and RJ Davis are all missing from the draft boards mentioned above. What this likely means is that UNC are guaranteed to have three McDonald’s All-Americans remain on the roster if we were to focus on draft potential alone. If we are to be concerned about anybody pulling a JP Tokoto and going pro regardless of draft stock, it would be Armando Bacot. He has had an impressive sophomore campaign, averaging 11.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game. He has had some lackluster performances, but he has still found a way to average 62.4% from the field. It’s really hard to say whether or not Bacot would decide to collect a check instead of giving his junior year a go, but I’ll roll the dice and say that he will likely return to Chapel Hill in hopes of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, let’s talk briefly about the incoming freshman. Roy Williams managed to land Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn, both of whom are four-star commits. The addition of Styles is especially worth pointing out because this will finally give some depth at the small forward spot behind Leaky Black. Both Styles and Dunn have proven to be very capable scorers, but just like Love and Davis we will have to wait and see how well that translates to the college game.

So, who do I think will make an appearance on the 2021-22 roster? I’d expect Day’Ron Sharpe to be the only guaranteed Tar Heel to head to the NBA. I do expect one other surprise exit, but it’s hard to tell if it will be Caleb Love or Armando Bacot. However things pan out, I do think that this team will be able to take a sizable step forward next season with so many good pieces returning. It’s worth remembering just how bizarre this season truly was, and I think Roy Williams will be able to get what he wants out of his players when things return to normal. If the Heels’ recent shenanigans have you down in the dumps, cheeer up: things are looking pretty good for this team’s future.