UNC fans and alumni love, correctly so, to talk about the intangibles when it comes to the greatest things about being Tar Heels. The tradition of excellence both academic and athletic, the camaraderie among current and past students, the feeling of being at the oldest public university in the country, knowing that ours is a University that serves the people, and several other things about being a Tar Heel are all reasons that people say incoming college students should go to Carolina. And of course, this extends to athletes, and, given the focus of most UNC supporters, it rings especially true for basketball players.
There are, of course, plenty of basketball reasons to become a Tar Heel if you have the opportunity. Roy Williams has firmly established himself as one of the best to ever coach the game, his offensive system rewards players who can play within a team, and his players would never be caught dead saying they were never really taught how to play defense. The Tar Heels play in the ACC and almost never underperform in the postseason, giving players real chances to play against top competition. And if all that isn’t enough, who wouldn’t want to follow in the GOAT’s footsteps?
These benefits are uniquely Carolina, but other schools can somewhat simulate them. Those that don’t have Michael Jordan might have a few superstars in the NBA right now. Those that don’t have complex offensive systems might promise elite players that they will be the focal point of an offense. Some recruits buy into a promise of one-and-done glory. Others find that media coverage is an adequate substitute for top competition in terms of exposure. And lately, it seems that this is the case for a growing majority of top recruits.
In recent years, Williams’ recruiting net has been cast more widely than it ever had to be before 2012, with apparently diminishing results (excepting the 2014 class, which we’ll discuss in a bit). The reasons for this have been discussed at length, but consensus boils down to a few things:
- Roy Williams has a reputation for preferring to play veterans over potentially more talented underclassmen, which some believe harms the underclassmen’s NBA stock.
- Compared to basketball schools of comparable reputation, UNC is represented fairly quietly in the NBA.
- The NCAA situation with UNC has the potential to bring down the reputation of anybody associated with the school’s athletic program.
- Five-star recruits that go to UNC don’t often leave after one year.
The validity of these points varies from completely false (1, 3) all the way to mostly true, but irrelevant (2). The really interesting one, however, is point number 4. Leaving for the NBA Draft is ultimately a player’s choice. For some reason, popular consensus likes to blame several players’ choices on Roy Williams and UNC instead of on the players themselves. It’s especially weird when you look at the specific examples. Harrison Barnes is often cited; as the highest-rated overall recruit coming out of high school, he was widely expected to be one-and-done. He stayed in college in order to avoid coming into the NBA in a lockout season, even though he was being mocked as a top-5 pick in the 2011 draft, and ended up being picked 7th in 2012. That’s major success by any reasonable standards, and yet because he wasn’t OAD like his peers, UNC supposedly looks worse for it.
What I personally find interesting is how UNC and Roy Williams handled that situation and others like it. When Barnes came back, he played exactly the same role he had the previous year. His minutes per game remained virtually identical, and he became a more efficient scorer and offensive player, as he benefited from the addition of Kendall Marshall to the starting lineup. Similarly, five-star recruits James Michael McAdoo and Ed Davis could have gone pro after their first seasons, where they flashed tremendous potential in reserve roles, but came back to Carolina, where they found increased roles that they parlayed into NBA careers. Williams welcomed them back with open arms and gave them chances to succeed even after they’d shown their ability.
And then there’s the 2014 class, famously made up of three 5-star recruits: Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry. Of the three, Jackson seemed to be the most pro-ready, given his advanced offensive game, size and length, and basketball IQ. He never said himself that he wanted to be one-and-done, but the assumption around Chapel Hill was certainly that he could be going that way, and this only strengthened when he was inserted into the starting lineup from Day 1, flouting Rule 1 above. His story is well-documented: After a good freshman year where his only real weaknesses were confidence and jump shooter, he returned to UNC. He improved as a player his sophomore year, but not as a shooter, then went to the NBA Combine, where teams told him he was basically untouchable unless he got stronger and shot better, and then lit the NCAA on fire his junior year, becoming UNC’s MVP in a championship season and getting drafted in the first round. Jackson’s is kind of the quintessential college success story: He spent time in college improving, not rushing his development, and now is in position to succeed at the next level. This doesn’t often happen at other schools. As I discussed when defending Tony Bradley’s decision to leave early, very few top recruits are actually able to improve their stock by returning to school. This alone should make UNC stand out.
But let’s look at the other two members of that class, Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, both entering their senior years at UNC. For various reasons, despite their high rankings coming out of high school, neither has really ever been considered to be drafted into the NBA, certainly not in the first round. Across the country, we see players get pushed to the end of the bench for not living up to lofty recruiting standards, or losing their roles because somebody better comes in. That doesn’t happen at Carolina. Sophomore Marcus Paige didn’t get ignored for incoming 5-star point guard Joel Berry, even after an underwhelming freshman year. Berry himself, after a quiet first year where he played in a reserve role, was given the reins to the offense, not pushed to the bench. Theo Pinson, despite a rash of injuries, has always had a spot on the team available to him when he comes back, even with a lot of wing depth ready to take his spot.
And that is one of the things that’s most unique about UNC and Roy Williams: Williams understands that life and basketball don’t always go as planned. College freshmen are still figuring a lot of things out in their lives, and it’s not always their fault if they don’t excel immediately. Too many schools are set on instant gratification; if their biggest recruits don’t produce immediately, they must not have been worth their rating. Williams, on the other hand, no matter what a player’s situation might be, will give second and third and fourth chances readily, knowing that there’s a reason he pursued them. At UNC, you don’t have to be scared of messing up, which will happen no matter where you are. Being a Tar Heel means having the ability to pick yourself up after a fall, knowing that it’s never too late to prove your worth. Unlike anywhere else, UNC will make you and your success a priority, even if it doesn’t come right away. And in my opinion, the ability to play without fear is a powerful one indeed. Hopefully, more recruits realize that in the coming years.