The fall signing period for men’s basketball recruiting began last week, and UNC walked away with four new members of the Tar Heel family. Andrew Platek (SG), Brandon Huffman (PF), Sterling Manley (C), and Jalek Felton (PG) all officially signed their letters of intent as their senior seasons kick off. Having four solidified, bonafide future Tar Heels is a welcome feeling after last year’s roller coaster of uncertainty.
Arguably, this class currently does not match the hype and euphoria of previous UNC recruiting classes, as the highest ranked player is Jalek Felton. Depending on the scouting service you prefer, Felton is a solid top-25 prospect. Sterling Manley isn’t even ranked by some scouting services. This seems to be a drop-off from the Joel/Theo/Justin class of 2014, and even last year’s Tony/Seventh/Brandon triumvirate.
However, if the Heels can reel in one of their remaining targets, I think by the time next spring rolls around, this is going to be a highly underrated, sneaky-good recruiting class. It’s important to relax, take a step back, and look at the overall picture that is developing in Chapel Hill. Besides, Roy ain’t done yet. There are a few key points to consider.
The current list of signees includes a PG, SG, PF, and a C. Almost every single position now has depth for the future. This class is about as well-rounded as you will find and fills specific needs for UNC over the next 3-4 years. Depending on when/if Jalek decides to leave, these four could very well all be starters (or key contributors) by the time 2020-21 rolls around. That’s not something that can be said very often.
In the current recruiting climate, this won’t satisfy some fans, as they have come to desire top-10 talent, even if that player will only provide one year of entertainment. I won’t debate which method is better - they both have benefits. Instead, I will remind fans that the one-and-done trend has not fully translated to post-season success. I did a very basic analysis of that phenomenon here.
It is not a bad idea to ensure a program has stability and depth for future seasons and recruiting cycles. This formula has proven to be successful. These four freshmen will presumably join Seventh Woods, Theo Pinson, Kenny WIlliams, Brandon Robinson, Tony Bradley, and Luke Maye. That is a competitive line-up, and doesn’t factor in the possibility of Joel Berry returning.
Over the years, Roy has been extremely resourceful and successful in maintaining quality depth in order to minimize “rebuilding” years. This is a classic example.
Available Scholarships and Flexibility
With five seniors graduating at the conclusion of this season, Roy Williams has at least one more scholarship available, and will use that in pursuit of another prospect. If Justin Jackson and/or Joel Berry officially leave for the NBA after their junior season. This leaves a larger amount of uncertainty and flexibility for the rest of this recruiting year. That’s both nerve-wracking and exciting.
Earlier this year I wrote about how UNC recruiting is officially trending up. I suggested that while UNC loves their traditional system with two post players, the next few years would allow an opportunity to explore some different skill sets to adapt to the current (perceived) changing landscape. Specifically, combo wings/forwards who can play inside and outside, similar to Marvin and Jawad Williams in 2005, and Theo Pinson last season. As the number of available true, traditional big men dwindles in the 2017 class, that may be more of a possibility (or necessity).
There are a few “big” names available that could potentially fill that void, who are waiting until the spring to sign. Most notably Kevin Knox, a six-foot-eight, 205-pound small forward and Jared Vanderbilt a six-foot-seven, 205-pound power forward have expressed increased interest in UNC. Regardless of listed positions, both are mobile, versatile players who can be a factor at small forward, or provide a serious mismatch for opponents as a “stretch” four.
UNC is reportedly still very much in the running for those two. Knox will take his official visit next year, and Vanderbilt attended Midnight with Roy. Coach Williams has lamented the fact that getting players to UNC and being invited to their house for home visits had been some of the difficulties of the past few years. That has changed over the past six months.
However, after a “rough” few years, it takes some time to rebuild connections and reputations on the trail. In many of these cases, UNC got a late start due to players not expressing interest as NCAA uncertainty swirled about. For some of the top-tier talent, recruiting is a multi-year process. If a few players decide to wait until next year to commit, that can only help UNC foster those relationships where they may have been originally shut out.
There is still available talent to be had. The recruiting landscape will continue to evolve over this season as other teams begin filling out their own recruiting classes. It would not be a surprise to see a few other recruits begin to show interest or receive interest from UNC as well. Remember, Kenny Williams became available late in the cycle due to Shaka Smart leaving VCU.
Finally, I will argue that this class is better than what the rankings currently indicate. Maybe I’m being willfully ignorant/optimistic in the face of the current recruiting landscape. Yet, rankings can be inconsistent and don’t capture the entire scenario. This is especially true in regards to Manley and Huffman.
According to 247Sports, Manley, who is from Ohio, holds a composite overall ranking of 253. Huffman holds a composite ranking of 193. Those rankings are an overall average from various national recruiting databases. Considering the amount of talent that is leaving UNC next spring, that doesn’t sound very encouraging. My initial reaction was one of concern, as players with similar rankings rarely contribute as freshman, especially at schools like UNC.
However, those rankings don’t account for certain nuances. For example, Manley broke each of his legs over the previous 18 months. He missed the majority of his junior season and the summer AAU circuits. He is ranked so low, in large part, because he wasn’t playing. It’s a classic case of “out of sight, out of mind”. As soon as he became healthy and began working out, offers began pouring in.
Some lucky timing and a quick trigger by UNC helped them beat out Power 5 schools like Tennessee, West Virginia, and constant Top-25 mainstay, Xavier. Those may not be the same schools UNC is used to battling on the recruiting trail, but there is little doubt that he would've garnered more attention had UNC not acted so swiftly this summer. UNC may have just stolen a future UNC household name right out from under Thad Matta’s nose.
Huffman was in a similar “out of sight, out of mind” situation. Being the son of a military father, he spent his first few years of high school in Alaska. While the Great Alaskan Shootout may be a key Feast Week tournament, there aren’t many scouts or traditional high level competition in that part of the USA. It wasn’t until he enrolled at Word of God Christian Academy in Raleigh, NC that he began to gather attention.
Once again, UNC acted quickly and offered him in September. They beat out Power 5 schools like Tennessee (again), UCONN, Baylor, and Indiana. Since that time, Huffman has already cracked the top 100 on 247Sports’ organic recruit rankings, coming in at 97. It is only a matter of time before other recruiting services do the same.
It is extremely rare that Power 5 schools and traditional basketball blue bloods “stumble” upon a hidden gem. UNC may have legitimately found one (or two!) in less than six months. I am not naive enough to think that either big man is currently a top-20 talent. But, they do have the potential to be top 100 players, even if the rankings don’t fully indicate that.
If that turns out to be true, and they can sign one of their top targets in the spring, then UNC may have one of the more underrated recruiting classes of 2017.