In the 2017 NBA Draft, both the second oldest and eighth youngest players in the first round came from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They are, of course, Justin Jackson, a junior, and Tony Bradley, a freshman, respectively. In fact, no school other than UNC had both an underclassman and an upperclassman drafted in the first round.
This should make clear that which UNC fans likely already know: UNC and Roy Williams offer top basketball recruits many different avenues towards professional success, not just the ones most convenient to the program’s image.
The degree to which Williams’ reputation has fluctuated throughout his career is truly astounding. In his earlier days, at Kansas, according to the man himself (via alumnus Marcus Paige),
“Coach always says when he was at Kansas, they said he could coach and couldn’t get elite guys,” said former Tar Heel Marcus Paige.
Due to various circumstances, Williams never won a championship at Kansas, though he got very close several times. This inevitably earned him the additional label of “one of the best coaches to never win it all.” Fortunately, this went away extremely quickly after WIlliams left Kansas, when he won a championship within two years of arriving at his alma mater. He had elite players and had won a championship. Things seemed to be looking up for Roy Williams’ ability to get those elite players who had (apparently) previously eluded him.
It even worked too well, as a roster full of Williams-recruited elite players only managed to get to the Final Four in 2008. And after that, the criticism started pouring in again, but in the opposite direction: Now, Williams had no problem getting elite recruits. He just couldn’t win with them. The only time he had won, it was with another coach’s players.
This perception was somehow not put to rest when the same players returned for another season and tore their way through the NCAA Tournament, because I guess it was unfair that players as good as Tyler Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson, and Danny Green stayed in school for as long as they did. (Note: I heard none of this when the majority of Kentucky’s 2013-14 title game team stayed, nor when Grayson Allen stayed at Duke for his junior season).
In 2012, a group of anonymously polled coaches (in)famously declared Roy Williams the most overrated coach in college basketball, because he had only ever coached at prestigious institutions, and, according to them,
"He's won at Kansas and UNC. But who couldn't do that ... besides Matt Doherty?
Apparently, they’d forgotten that when Williams was at Kansas, he was being impugned for not being able to win at Kansas the way you’re supposed to apparently win at Kansas.
The coaching disrespect didn’t stop there, though. Over the next three years, coaches were asked who the best coaches at offense, defense, and recruiting were in college basketball. Williams didn’t get a single vote in any of them. So now, apparently, he couldn’t recruit or coach, a decade after having been criticized for being too good at both of them at separate times.
If it wasn’t obvious by now, none of this makes any sense.
All this is to say that the 2017 season, and ensuing draft, should serve as a loud reminder that Roy Williams is the best college basketball coach in the country, no matter what your aims are as a recruit. In case you forgot, Williams’ team just won the NCAA Championship, and they didn’t even play particularly well for most of the tournament. That’s how much better they were than the competition.
The team had an assortment of contributors, from highly-touted five-star recruits to players who were initially recruited as walk-ons. This alone should signal that Williams knows how to win with a talent-diverse roster. They also varied in age with the top 10 minute-earning players being three seniors, three juniors, two sophomores, and two freshmen. It wasn’t just experience that won the title, it was the ability to mold every player on the roster into a contributor regardless of age or talent.
The two drafted Heels this year, Jackson and Bradley, were both five-star recruits. Neither originally had eyes on being one-and-done, like some of their peers. Jackson, a guard, struggled with his outside shot as an underclassman. He was an excellent player, just one with an inconsistent jump shot, not quite living up to his recruiting billing. He found out that he would need to come back to school and turn his jumper into a weapon again before he could enter the draft.
Williams gave him the tools he needed to succeed, including a coaching staff that would push him to get stronger and be a leader, all the advice he could give, and his blessing to test the waters of the NBA Draft after his sophomore year. Jackson’s junior year was the fruition of all of this, as he turned into a 37% three-point shooter and parlayed his success into being the 15th pick in the draft.
Jackson’s story isn’t exactly new for Williams. Just the previous year, Brice Johnson had capped a four-year career of steady improvement with a statement year, which propelled him from originally being an exciting but unheralded college player into a first-round NBA Draft pick. Jackson, though originally a higher-profile recruit, went through a similar progression, and through Williams’ coaching, came out of UNC a much better player than he came in.
The surprise of the year was Tony Bradley. A highly recruited freshman, he was not expected to start over the senior duo of Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, though given Williams’ love of the post, he would get ample opportunity to shine. And shine he did, even more than most expected of him. He never played more than 20 minutes in a game, but his efficiency was absurd.
He was the best offensive rebounder by rate in the country, averaged 19 points and 14 rebounds per 40 minutes through the entire season (despite a subpar NCAA tournament), had the highest Offensive Rating of any regular rotation player on the team and the 3rd best Defensive Rating, and was second on the team in block percentage. He caught analysts’ eyes from the very first time he played with his advanced offensive skill and basketball IQ, though as evidenced by that defensive rating, grew into a very good defensive player as well during his time at UNC. He became good enough (and winning a championship doesn’t hurt) that he decided to enter the NBA Draft, even though that wasn’t originally his priority.
Just like Jackson, Bradley was given the tools he needed: the ability to play with abandon given UNC’s post depth, elite competition, and an emphasis on rebounding. Even though UNC hadn’t had a one-and-done player in nearly a decade, Bradley had Williams’ total support throughout the pre-draft process. When reporters asked Williams if losing Bradley might hurt the program, hunting for seeds of doubt, Williams fired back that having a one-and-done player would definitely help the future of the program.
He might not have been the typical 2010’s Roy Williams player, Bradley showed that UNC has the ability to put out one-and-done players just like the others, and maybe even better. Most of the players around Bradley’s ranking in his class didn’t enter the draft. Of those who did, one went earlier than Bradley (Zach Collins of Gonzaga, also not known for one-and-done players), and one went later (Frank Jackson of Duke). The perception has been that Williams doesn’t want one-and-dones, that he is trying to win in a more old-school way. But Bradley should be clear evidence that there is a place for one-and-done players to play at the highest stages in Chapel Hill.
You can’t argue with results. And the results say that though others’ recruiting methods might be flashier, nobody has been more effective than Roy Williams. But that’s always been true. What this year tells us is that he doesn’t just have to do it “his way.” He can, and hopefully will, be able to do it every way he pleases.