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An update on Tar Heels in the NBA

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With a little more than a week until the postseason, let’s take a look at where UNC is represented in the pros

Phoenix Suns v Cleveland Cavaliers

The NBA season has been fairly quiet this year, with limited fan capacity in most stadiums for most of the year, the general pandemic ennui towards men’s sports, and the accelerated nature of it, which has led to games being played pretty much on top of each other even more than in a typical NBA season. But now, we’re headed into the home stretch and catching up with the normal NBA timeline, which puts the playoffs in May to late June. The season will end on May 16th, followed by play-in games from the 18th to the 21st, and then the playoffs will begin on May 22nd. We’ll have a proper playoff primer, as we usually do, around that time, but even before that, here’s an update on all the Heels in the NBA and what they’ve been up to, from most recent Heel to oldest:

Cole Anthony, Orlando Magic

Anthony has been in the unenviable position of a first-round pick on a clearly tanking team, as the Magic are jockeying for the worst record in the Eastern Conference with the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers and traded away their best player, Nikola Vucevic, mid-season. The good news is that he’s been given a lot of freedom to feel out the NBA and play through mistakes and inefficiency as a rookie, which should help him in the near future. At the moment, he’s averaging 12 points per game on 39% shooting (33% from three-point range), adding 4.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest as well. His efficiency and advanced stats are predictably not very good, as you might guess from the shooting percentages, but a lot of that can be attributed to rookie growing pains coming off an injury, and then missing much of the middle of the season with an injury to his chest. Despite that, he’s shown flashes of brilliance, like this game-winner (and absolutely golden postgame interview) over the Memphis Grizzlies the other day:

Buzz around Cole is really positive in Orlando fan circles for when he starts more consistently playing in control and has fully adjusted to the speed and space of the NBA.

Coby White, Chicago Bulls

Poor Coby. He bet on himself as a point guard coming into the league and then got pigeonholed as a microwave scorer under Jim Boylen, and while he showed some playmaking flashes that promised the ability to become and learn to be a real floor general, Boylen’s awful development program didn’t give him the chance (ask our friend Brandon Anderson for more). Enter Billy Donovan, who fully backed White as a point guard in training and given him over 90% of his minutes at the point, defending him through early struggles and rejecting calls for him to move to the bench as, well, a microwave scorer.

As the season winds down, though, Coby’s in a bit of a tough spot, because those struggles haven’t really faded away, and he’s running out of development time: it might be this summer or bust for him as a lead guard. And the flip side of that is that he’s a good scorer even if he’s not a point guard — he’s averaging 17.4 points per game on 41.3% shooting (35% from three, 91% from the free-throw line, 50% eFG%) — but the Bulls already have that in Zach LaVine, who’s taken a leap this year from a luxury player who didn’t help the Bulls win to a genuine star who’s carried their season, so there isn’t really space in the Bulls starting lineup for a lesser version of him. If this were last year, White could have at worst replaced LaVine for cheaper and probably been less of a black hole than the pre-2021 version of Lavine was, but now, things look much less certain for a prosperous future for White in Chicago. This will be a crucial offseason for him as the Bulls head towards missing the playoffs after a promising but ultimately mediocre season in Donovan’s first year.

Cam Johnson, Phoenix Suns

The Suns, with the addition of Chris Paul to take some of the offensive load off of Devin Booker, have become one of the NBA’s best teams and arguably its most fun to watch, and Cam Johnson has been a key part of their rotation coming off the bench. He’s playing 24 minutes per game as a small-ball power forward and playing simple, winning basketball — until lately. He’s had a hurt wrist and a possibly broken nose recently, so that might be part of it, but for otherwise unfathomable reasons, the first 48 games of the season, he was averaging 39% shooting from 3 and 45% from the field, and for the last 12 has been averaging just 20% from three and 32% from the field. He and Mikal Bridges have kind of been Phoenix’s X-factors this season, so there’s a significant amount of the Suns’ fortune riding on him getting his shot right ahead of the playoffs, where the Suns have already clinched a spot and will probably be among the top seeds in the West. While suffering this shooting slump, though, we at least had the joy of watching Cam do this to Jarrett Allen:

Nassir Little, Portland Trail Blazers

Little was one of the most-hyped Blazers this past offseason and there were pretty high expectations for what he might do with a season of Portland’s famed player development staff getting their hands on him, but a pretty severe bout with Covid-19 put a damper on that to start the season. The season for him has been a story of getting back into game shape, seeing minutes mostly in situational roles or at the ends of blowouts where he punishes everybody else on the floor just with effort. He’s also shown his Year 1- Year 2 improvement in those minutes, improving his 3-point percentage from 30% to 35% and his free throw stroke from 67% to 80%, which are fantastic indicators for the damage he might be able to do once he gets into the rotation. For now, he’s been a little buried behind Carmelo Anthony (to a lot of fans’ chagrin, but I guess you’re not going to disrespect a legend), but in his time has shown a lot of offensive improvement and successfully translated his defensive tools to the NBA, already one of the best defenders regardless of position on Portland’s roster. He could be a real weapon next year if and when the Blazers’ lineup shifts.

Theo Pinson, New York Knicks

Pinson has more often than not been a member of Club Trillion while playing for the suddenly genuinely good Knicks post-release from the Brooklyn Nets, but in true Theo fashion, he’s already a fan favorite. Pinson was already pretty famous around the league for his bench celebrations in Brooklyn, but I guess playing at the Garden gets you even more exposure, because at this point he’s a New York celebrity for how much he hypes up his teammates. He’s been credited with having a large part in the Knicks’ chemistry this year as well as having the knowledge of another coach in the huddle, and a writer for the Knicks’ Fansided page is already okay with making him a Knick for life because they can’t imagine this version of the Knicks without Pinson, regardless of how much or little he plays: he’s become part of the lifeblood of the team, it would seem both from the outside and internally.

Justin Jackson, Milwaukee Bucks

It has been a tumultuous year for Jackson, who was dealt to the Oklahoma City Thunder from Dallas to start the year, and then, after an underwhelming first half of the season, dealt to the Milwaukee Bucks midseason, where he’s signed a 2-way contract and hasn’t yet appeared in a game. Perhaps some time off will let him get his mind right and his reps in to re-become the shooter he was when he was first drafted, as he’s really yet to live up to that promise as a professional.

Tony Bradley, Oklahoma City Thunder

Bradley started the season in Philadelphia, backing up Joel Embiid alongside Dwight Howard and quickly capturing the hearts of 76ers fans with his limited minutes, occasional burst of scoring and low-post efficiency, and positive reports from coaches, but between Embiid’s dominance getting him more minutes than expected and Howard’s renaissance as a backup, Bradley didn’t really have a consistent place in the rotation. Since being traded to Oklahoma City at the deadline, though, he’s found new life, averaging a career-high 18 minutes per game and scoring 9 points per game on 65% shooting, adding 6.3 rebounds and nearly one block per game to boot. He’s been efficient, a good defender, and is really setting himself up to demand more minutes after a full offseason with the team, assuming it stays relatively whole after a huge regression from last year triggered by the loss of the aforementioned Chris Paul.

Reggie Bullock, New York Knicks

Unlike his friend Pinson, Bullock has been a major contributor to the 4th-ranked Knicks’ season. In his 10th season in the Association, Bullock seems to have found a home in New York, starting at small forward and averaging the second-most minutes of his career. He’s making good on those minutes, too, averaging better than 41% from beyond the arc on 6 attempts per game. He’s actually pretty dang close to putting together a 50/40/90 season, even though he doesn’t have the free throw attempts to qualify: he’s 45% from the field (and 52% from 2-point range. If only his shooting were more balanced!), 41% from 3, and 89.5% from the free throw line. All that adds up to 10.6 points per game, combined with fairly mistake-free basketball (he has more steals, 46, than turnovers (41) on the season), and a key reason for why the Knicks are going to be a pretty tough out in the postseason.

Harrison Barnes, Sacramento Kings

After a career marked so far mostly by criticism for not playing winning basketball, for not being able to make his teammates better, and for having a chronic case of tunnel vision, Barnes has finally been able to shed all of those conceptions of him and become a real positive addition to the Kings, despite their struggles through a “gap year” under new management. He’s averaging a career-high 13% assist rate and 3.3 assists per game, well above his career averages to this point, and doing so while being the same effective scorer he’s always been, averaging 16 points per game on 49% shooting (39% from three, 83% from the free-throw line). He’s also throwing in a career-high 6.6 rebounds per game as a full-time power forward for the first time in his career. The Kings reportedly entertained trade calls for him near the deadline from teams with playoff aspirations, but shut them all down and apparently think he’s going to be a key part of a playoff team next year, with the current core given a year to gel. The Kings have the pieces to be a good team, and Barnes is definitely one of them now that he’s added much better court vision to his game.

Ed Davis, Minnesota Timberwolves

Davis has mostly played garbage time minutes on one of the worst teams in basketball, playing just 22 games this season and averaging just 13 minutes a game in those games. His most notable role on the floor has seemingly been occasionally starting at center to send the younger bigs on the roster a message. He hasn’t been particularly effective on the floor, either, averaging just 43% shooting from the floor on exclusively shots near the basket. Where his effect on the Wolves might be evident is in the development of Naz Reid, who’s gone from meme to one of Minnesota’s best players this season and will hopefully form a powerful post duo with Karl-Anthony Towns if and when the latter fully recovers mentally and physically from this pandemic. Davis is one of the most renowned teammate mentors in the league, and hopefully finds work as an assistant coach or trainer after his playing days are over, which may be soon the way things are going.

Wayne Ellington, Detroit Pistons

The Pistons have been awful from the beginning of the season to present, but in the first half of the season, Ellington was the one watchable thing about them. After a string of unimpressive seasons, he surged back with a vengeance, briefly holding the title of the NBA’s hottest shooter — through the first 25 games of the season, he was shooting better than 47% from three. At that point, though, since he was the Pistons’ only real offensive threat, defenses keyed in on him heavily and his shooting suffered; he’s hitting 3’s at a rate of 38.1% since then. Still good, but nowhere near the nuclear rate he was reaching early in the season, which would have made him a really attractive trade piece to a contender if Detroit had thought about selling high rather than trying to make their current, very underwhelming roster work somehow. Ellington hasn’t played a bunch lately, as he’s been dealing with some injuries and the Pistons have been giving their young players audition time, but as long as he can show that he hasn’t lost any of his shine from early in the season and can still nuke oppositions if he just has some surrounding talent, he’ll be an attractive free agent for good teams this summer.

Danny Green, Philadelphia 76ers

Unlike many of his fellow Heels, Green has saved his best ball for the latter part of the season. He wasn’t bad so much as slightly underwhelming earlier (as were the 76ers as a team), but he’s really been clicking lately as a low-usage starter at small forward for Doc Rivers’ team. He leads the squad in three-point attempts per game and makes them at a 41% clip, leading to a solid average of just under 10 points per game. He’s also continued to be a stellar defender, with a 1.5 steal-per-game average to his name and one of the best perimeter defensive ratings on the team. Add in his lack of turnovers, and, like Bullock, you have a player who plays winning basketball, does a lot of little things to help his team win, and has helped his team get into prime playoff position: the 76ers lead the Eastern Conference by a full 2 games over the Brooklyn Nets. And he’s had a huge impact on the team outside himself, too. Matisse Thybulle, who’s developed into one of the league’s best defenders in his second NBA season, credits Green with a lot of help in the work he’s put in to get to that point, adding to the record of Heels who have made a point to help their younger counterparts even when it might mean them getting replaced, for the good of their teams and for the good of the game.